While the world waits to hear news of Schiaparelli’s fate, mission scientists gave a brief status update at the 48th annual meeting for Division of Planetary Sciences in Pasadena, CA. Here’s what we know so far:
The ExoMars 2016 mission is a joint project between the European and Russian Space Agencies, and has two major components: an orbiter (called the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO) and a lander (called Schiaparelli). On October 16 — after over 200 days in space — the two spacecrafts separated and started making preparations for their own missions.
TGO is tasked with the bulk of the science. As the spacecraft orbits Mars, it will collect data on the atmosphere, study the Martian climate and seasons, and help relay data collected on the surface back to Earth.
Schiaparelli’s job is to test out entry, descent, and landing technologies that will be used on future Mars missions. Engineers will be able to take the data collected, and tweak it if need be, for the next phase of ExoMars, which will launch in 2020.
As expected, TGO checked in at 12:34 p.m. Eastern.
As part of a communications experiment, ESA outfitted Schiaparelli with an ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio so it can transmit data directly to ESA, and also to a fleet of spacecrafts orbiting Mars. The signal transmitted by Schiaparelli would then be picked up by a special telescope in India — Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT).
At 11:12 a.m. Eastern, the GMRT received a signal from Schiaparelli as the vehicle was in the descent phase of its landing. Mission control confirmed that the heat shield separated and the parachutes deployed as planned. However, the signal was lost right before landing. No other signals have been picked up by GMRT so far.
ESA then turned to the Mars Express (MEX) orbiter for help. Data collected by MEX confirmed what was received by GMRT. Since there was still no data to confidently say if Schiaparelli had survived the landing or not, mission operatives turned to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as the spacecraft would be passing over the landing site around the same time Schiaparelli would be landing.
That data has been downlinked and is currently being analyzed. TGO will be sending back data of its own in the coming hours. During a press conference held at the DPS meeting, Olivier Witasse of ESA said, “Tomorrow we should have two interesting data sets.”
Scientists and engineers will be pouring over the data all night. We probably won’t know anything else until a scheduled press conference at 4 a.m. Eastern (10 a.m. CEST).
It’s important to keep in mind that this mission is a test mission. So even if Schiaparelli is lost, engineers will still have valuable data that will help them on future missions.
“We received more than 20 MB of telemetry data from the lander,” Witasse explained. “This landing is a test, and as such you want to know everything that happened. Even if the test has stopped, we can still learn why. This is what makes it successful.”
When asked how this will affect the next phase of the mission in 2020, when ESA hopes to send a life-hunting rover to the Martian surface, Witasse said that it may have a slight impact, but would not affect it dramatically.