How can you fall 10 storeys uninjured? Jump off an 11-storey building.
If the end of Rosetta’s comet-chasing mission has left you feeling a lack of a space probe news to empathise with, then look no further. The European Space Agency (ESA), along with its Russian counterpart Roscosmos, has provided us with more home-grown high-speed drama.
The Schiaparelli space probe, having made the arduous journey of over fifty million kilometres to Mars, crash-landed into the planet’s surface “at several hundreds of kilometres per hour”, according to Michel Denis. Denis is the flight operations director of the ExoMars project, of which Schiaparelli played a part. Sadly, poor Schiaparelli was destroyed by the impact. In a high-resolution image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the plucky probe’s parachute and heat shield can be seen smashed apart in the middle of a messy crater about 40 metres long.
Having survived the breakneck descent through most of the Martian atmosphere, the lander only fired its thrusters for around three seconds rather than the thirty it should have done. This meant it was travelling far too quickly and too fast sideways when it landed, gouging out the long impact crater. The NASA picture also suggests the lander’s fuel tanks exploded, throwing out debris from soil and Schiaparelli alike.
ESA’s director-general Jan Woerner is adamant the mission has been a “success” because Schiaparelli successfully beamed back data indicating that the heat shield and parachute worked correctly for five of the six minutes of its descent, placing the lander well within its intended landing zone. The mission has value as a “technology demonstrator”, and the engineers gained useful experience to make a future Mars landing a less, ahem, mixed success. Besides, Schiaparelli’s mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter, was successfully placed in an orbit that will allow it to look for methane, and with it hopefully signs of microbial life, in the Martian atmosphere. The optimism of space scientists is admirable, but it is undeniable that when you’re hurtling towards the ground at high speed it’s the final minute, or the final storey, that really matters!