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Data glitch caused Mars lander to crash into Red Planet

By Allen Cone
Data glitch caused Mars lander to crash into Red Planet
An artistic rendering shows the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander approaching Mars. The Schiaparelli crash-landed in October and the Trace Gas Orbiter is orbiting the planet. Photo by ESA/ATG medialab

PARIS, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- The Schiaparelli lander crash-landed on Mars because of a sensor malfunction, the European Space Agency found after a preliminary investigation.

The agency said Wednesday a glitch on the onboard computer mistakenly thought the probe had landed or was about to touch down instead of being 2.29 miles away on Oct. 19.

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"This in turn successively triggered a premature release of the parachute and the backshell, a brief firing of the braking thrusters and finally activation of the on-ground systems as if Schiaparelli had already landed," the ESA said in a statement.

ESA engineers lost contact with the probe as it was bearing down on Mars.

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Despite the setback, ESA officials believe this failure will help future rover designs.

"This is still a very preliminary conclusion of our technical investigations," said David Parker, ESA's director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration. "The full picture will be provided in early 2017 by the future report of an external independent inquiry board. But we will have learned much from Schiaparelli that will directly contribute to the second ExoMars mission being developed with our international partners for launch in 2020."

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The probe, named for Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, was part of the ExoMars program. Its companion craft -- the Trace Gas Orbiter -- successfully orbited Mars as the Schiaparelli crashed.

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In 2003, ESA lost the signal with the British-made Beagle 2 in the agency's first attempt to land on Mars.

"ExoMars is extremely important for European science and exploration," Roberto Battiston, president of Italy's ASI space agency said Wednesday. "Together with all the participating states in the program, we will work towards the successful completion of the second ExoMars mission."

In 2018, the Trace Gas Orbiter will begin seeking the source of methane on Mars, a possible signature of life on the planet.

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