A Computer Glitch Might Have Killed the Mars Schiaparelli Lander


A technological glitch may be the reason the European Space Agency lost its Schiaparelli lander last week, just a little over a minute before, when the spacecraft was set to land on the Martian surface. That error may have caused the lander to shut off its reverse thrusters used to land too early, resulting in hard landing and an explosive crash on the Red Planet’s surface.

Andrea Accomazzo, the head of ESA’s solar and planetary missions, told Nature this week that his hunch is that a software problem caused Schiaparelli to criss-cross data coming from differing servers. The computer believed it was in a lower altitude than it really was.

Schiaparelli is part of the ESA and Russia’s collaborative ExoMars mission to study the Red Planet for signs of ancient or current life, and habitability. The failure happened near the end of a planned six-minute descent when its parachute and heat shield were ejected prematurely. The lander’s thrusters, which were supposed to fire for about 30 seconds in order to slow the craft down, were engaged for just about three seconds before Schiaparelli’s computer turned them off. It was under the mistaken impression the lander had already landed.

The investigation into the mission’s failed landing is far from over, so there’s no telling whether this theory on a computer glitch is on the mark. It’s key to understand what happened, because the basic design for Schiaparelli’s entry-descent-landing system will be used for the second part of the ExoMars mission: the launch of a rover to Martian surface in 2020.

There’s good and bad news behind a computer glitch. A software issue would be much easier to remedy in time for the 2020 rover launch. However, Schiaparelli is set of hardware, so a problem with the lander’s parts would not necessarily affect the rover itself.

“If we have a serious technological issue, then its different, then we have to re-evaluate carefully. But I don’t expect it to be the case,” Accomazzo said.

It’s also worth remembering that the other part of ExoMars, the Trace Gas Orbiter, is working as well it’s supposed to, as it orbits Mars from above. TGO is supposed to act as a mothership for the entire mission, so the 2020 rover operations have at least one central piece already in place.

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