Images taken by a NASA Mars orbiter indicate that a missing European space probe fell to the Red Planet’s surface from a height of 2 to 4 kilometers (1.2 to 2.5 miles) and was destroyed on impact, the European Space Agency said on Friday.
The disc-shaped 577-kg (1,272 lb) Schiaparelli probe, part of the Russian-European ExoMars program to search for evidence of life on Mars, descended on Wednesday to test technologies for a rover that scientists hope to send to the surface of the planet in 2020.
But contact to the vehicle was lost around 50 seconds before the expected landing time, leaving its fate uncertain until the NASA images were received.
The primary part of the mission has, however, been a success so far, as the Schiaparelli lander’s mothership has been brought into orbit around Mars, from where it will try to sniff out methane and other gases that might indicate the presence of life. It will also act as a data relay station for the rover, which is due to follow in 2020.
The U.S. space agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling Mars for about 10 years, took low-resolution pictures that show a bright spot that ESA believes is the 12-metre parachute that Schiaparelli used to slow down. (//bit.ly/2efEs3u)
They also show a fuzzy dark patch, around 15 by 40 meters in size, about 1 km north of the parachute, which scientists interpret as having been created by the impact of the lander following a longer-than-planned free fall.
ESA said it was possible that Schiaparelli’s landing was accompanied by an explosion, as its thrusters’ fuel tanks were probably still full.
(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Georgina Prodhan and Mark Trevelyan)