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ESA spacecraft in orbit around Mars, still no word from lander

Even if the landing was ultimately a failure, ESA will have gleaned valuable information from the attempt.

By
Brooks Hays
An artistic rendering shows the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander approaching Mars. Photo by ESA/ATG medialab
An artistic rendering shows the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander approaching Mars. Photo by ESA/ATG medialab

PARIS, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Engineers with the European Space Agency are still analyzing data related to the touchdown of Schiaparelli, the Mars lander.

The silence suggests failure, but officials are still in an upbeat mood as the Trace Gas Orbiter was successfully slung into orbit around the Red Planet on Wednesday.

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On Wednesday, ESA engineers confirmed the lander was bearing down on the surface of Mars -- preparing for its final approach. But tracking its descent has proven difficult. Schiaparelli wasn't designed to send signals directly back to Earth. Instead, it relays signals through the Trace Gas Orbiter.

When the lander lost contact with TGO, scientists turned to its Mars Express spacecraft, which had also been programmed to feed Schiaparelli signals back to Earth.

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That data took awhile to get to Earth and even longer to analyze. Astronomers are still sorting through the stream. So far, scientists have identified data corresponding with important milestones -- like the deployment of the lander's parachute -- but it's not yet clear whether the craft survived the landing.

"Teams monitoring the Schiaparelli lander continue waiting for indication of the lander's progress," ESA officials wrote in an update. "Recording of the lander's beacon signal during descent by ESA's Mars Express orbiter was inconclusive."

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The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will get the next opportunity to field a beacon signal from Schiaparelli.

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Even if the landing was ultimately a failure, ESA will have gleaned valuable information from the attempt. Schiaparelli was mostly included in the TGO mission as preparation for a more ambitious rover landing mission in 2020.

The majority of the science planned for the latest mission rests with TGO, not Schiaparelli.

TGO is designed to study the gases in Mars' atmosphere, specifically methane. On Earth, most methane is produced by biological processes. Its presence on Mars could offer clues to the presence of life.

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Both the TGO and Schiaparelli lander missions are part of the broader ExoMars program. The missions are being carried out in partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

Livestream coverage of the landing is ongoing.

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