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Mere seconds from landing on Mars, Schiaparelli lander’s signal goes dark

After spending the last seven months preparing to land its Schiaparelli lander on the surface of Mars, the European Space Agency was ultimately left hanging at the precise moment the module was expected to touch down. As it deployed its landing parachute and continued with its final descent, the signal it relayed back to the European Space Agency (ESA) command center near Pune, India, went offline, leaving agency officials and those tuned into the webcast completely in the dark.

Due in part to how difficult it is to successfully land something on Mars, odds are Schiaparelli has become an extremely expensive Martian tombstone.

To be fair, the ESA isn’t entirely sure what happened and while it’s refrained from jumping to any conclusions, there’s still a chance Schiaparelli successfully landed on Mars and remains operational. While the agency awaits further communication from the lander — as well as an update via a NASA orbiter — it’s already planning on holding a press conference Thursday morning to issue an official update.

A rendering of the Schiaparelli lander

For those unaware of the mission, the ESA has been patiently counting down the days until October 19 for the better part of the past seven months. An ordinary fall day for anyone else, this particular Wednesday was the ESA’s target date for landing its tech- and data-focused spacecraft, the Schiaparelli lander — one piece of the agency’s anticipated ExoMars collaborative mission with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. In addition to Schiaparelli planting down on Martian real estate, the other side to the mission featured the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), a rig designed to not only transport the lander but also to orbit Mars upon arrival. Once in orbit, it would proceed to send atmospheric and temperature data to the ESA.

While the days leading up to Schiaparelli’s landing on Mars showed nothing for the ESA to worry about — its October 16 detachment from the TGO and subsequent descent to Mars went off without a hitch — its signal went completely offline mere moments before it was scheduled to touch down. As ESA agency members looked on, everything appeared to be functioning by the numbers as Schiaparelli neared red planet soil. Its descent appeared correct, it properly deployed its landing parachute — all signs pointed to a successful landing.

Then it went black.

At the same instant the lander’s nine hydrazine-powered thrusters were scheduled to blast in order to slow Schiaparelli down, the ESA lost contact. With a simultaneous webcast also showing darkness for several minutes, an ESA director stated, “we expected the signal to continue, but clearly it did not.”

The bright side to all this? During the time Schiaparelli intended on landing on Mars, the ExoMars TGO successfully reached orbit of the planet after burning its engines for roughly two hours. As seen by its dedicated Twitter account, the orbiter (as well as the ESA and Roscosmos, one would imagine) was wildly enthused by the accomplishment.

After announcing the TGO successfully entered orbit around Mars, ExoMars project manager Don McCoy didn’t avoid addressing the elephant in the room. Acknowledging the fact it was still way too early to offer any judgment as to what happened with Schiaparelli, McCoy added, “until we have data we are hesitant to make any conclusions.” Saying the agency would wait until NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter circled the planet, any information gathered until then would simply be inconclusive.

The ESA plans on spending the rest of Wednesday examining the information it does have while continuing to wait patiently for any post-landing communication from Schiaparelli. As of now, the agency’s press conference is scheduled for 4 a.m. ET (1 a.m. PT) and should resolve whether or not the lander was able to successfully complete its mission.