Mars welcomes its latest orbiter ExoMars
On 19th October 2016 the European-Russian mission ExoMars arrived at its destination. It delivered the Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO and an experimental lander, called Schiaparelli. Not everything went quite as planned, but it was a success, said European Space Agency (ESA) executives in a press briefing.
The good news is that TGO entered its orbit perfectly. From there, it will sniff the Martian atmosphere searching, among other things, for traces of life on the planet. It will also serve as a communication relay for missions on the ground: the two NASA rovers currently on Mars, and the one ESA plans for 2020.
The more touted part of the mission, however, was the experimental landing of the Schiaparelli module. With its limited science payload, this was mostly a dry run for the automatic landing procedure (possibly to be used in the 2020 stint of the mission).
Ground control lost contact with the lander about a minute before expected touchdown. Fortunately, the module had sent all the relevant data until then, so technicians are working to reconstruct exactly what happened.
It appears that the rockets that should have slowed down the final few kilometers of the descent malfunctioned, leaving the lander to free fall and crash. Images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter seem to show evidence of the impact on Mars's surface.
Schiaparelli was ESA's way of testing the waters for future landings. TGO, with all its science payload and its strategic importance, is a solid step towards Mars.
Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab