Scientists Search for Ancient Fossils in Australia, Practicing the Techniques They’ll Use on Mars

NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover is heading to Mars soon to look for fossils. The ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars rover is heading to Mars in the same time-frame to carry out its own investigations into Martian habitability. To meet their mission objectives, the scientists working the missions will need to look at a lot of rocks and uncover and understand the clues those rocks hold.

To help those scientists prepare for the daunting task of analyzing and understanding Martian rocks from 160 million km (100 million miles) away, they’ve gone on a field trip to Australia to study stromatolites.

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Nothing Says Springtime on Mars Like Explosions of Sand

Springtime on Earth can be a riotous affair, as plants come back to life and creatures large and small get ready to mate. Nothing like that happens on Mars, of course. But even on a cold world like Mars, springtime brings changes, though you have to look a little more closely to see them.

Lucky for us, there are spacecraft orbiting Mars with high-resolution cameras, and we can track the onset of Martian springtime through images.

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ExoMars Parachute Test Fails, for the Second Time

Next year, the European Space Agency (ESA) will be sending the ExoMars 2020 mission to the Red Planet. This mission consists of an ESA-built rover (Rosalind Franklin) and a Russian-led surface science platform (Kazachok) that will study the Martian environment in order to characterize its surface, atmosphere, and determine whether or not life could have once existed on the planet.

In preparation for this mission, engineers are putting the rover and lander through their paces. This includes the ongoing development of the mission’s parachute system, which is currently in troubleshooting after a failed deployment test earlier this month. These efforts are taking place at the Swedish Space Corporation testing site in Esrange, and involve the largest parachute ever used by a mission to Mars.

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Remember the Discovery of Methane in the Martian Atmosphere? Now Scientists Can’t Find any Evidence of it, at all

In 2003, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Center made the first-ever detection of trace amounts of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, a find which was confirmed a year later by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. In December of 2014, the Curiosity rover detected a tenfold spike of methane at the base of Mount Sharp, and later uncovered evidence that Mars has a seasonal methane cycle, where levels peak in the late northern summer.

Since it’s discovery, the existence of methane on Mars has been considered one of the strongest lines of evidence for the existence of past or present life. So it was quite the downer last week (on Dec. 12th) when the science team behind one of the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spectrometers announced that they had found no traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere.

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Underground Liquid Water Found on Mars!

According to evidence gathered by multiple robotic orbiters, rovers, and landers over the course of several decades, scientists understand that Mars was once a warmer, watery place. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, this began to change. As Mars magnetic field disappeared, the atmosphere slowly began to be stripped away by solar wind, leaving the surface the cold and dry and making it impossible for water to exist in liquid form.

While much of the planet’s water is now concentrated in the polar ice caps, scientists have speculated some of Mars’ past water could still be located underground. Thanks to a new study by a team of Italian scientists, it has now been confirmed that liquid water still exists beneath Mars’ southern polar region. This discovery has put an end to a fifteen-year mystery and bolstered the potential for future missions to Mars.

The study, titled “Radar evidence of subglacial liquid water on Mars“, recently appeared in the journal Science. The study was led by Roberto Orosei of the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) in Italy, and included members from the Italian Space Agency (ASI), the ESA Center for Earth Observation (ESRIN), and multiple observatories, research institutions and universities.

Radar detection of water under the south pole of Mars. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/Univ. Rome

So far, robotic missions have revealed considerable evidence of past water on Mars. These include dried-out river valleys and gigantic outflow channels discovered by orbiters, and evidence of mineral-rich soils that can only form in the presence of liquid water by rovers and landers. Early evidence from the ESA’s Mars Express probe has also showed that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is buried in the layers interspersed with dust.

However, scientists have long suspected that liquid water could exist beneath the polar ice caps, much in the same way that liquid water is believed to underlie glaciers here on Earth. In addition, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of subsurface water and keep it in a liquid state, despite the sub-zero temperatures present on both the surface and underground.

For many years, data from the Mars Express’ Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument – which has been used to study the southern polar region – has remained inconclusive. Like all ground-penetrating radar, this instrument relies on radar pulses to map surface topography and determine the properties of the materials that lie beneath the surface.

Luckily, after considerable analysis, the study team was able to develop new techniques that allowed them to collect enough high-resolution data to confirm the presence of liquid water beneath the southern ice cap. As Andrea Cicchetti, the MARSIS operations manager and a co-author on the new paper, indicated:

“We’d seen hints of interesting subsurface features for years but we couldn’t reproduce the result from orbit to orbit, because the sampling rates and resolution of our data was previously too low. We had to come up with a new operating mode to bypass some onboard processing and trigger a higher sampling rate and thus improve the resolution of the footprint of our dataset: now we see things that simply were not possible before.”

Water detection under the south pole of Mars. Credit: Context map: NASA/Viking; THEMIS background: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University; MARSIS data: ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/Univ. Rome; R. Orosei et al 2018

What they found was that the southern polar region is made of many layers of ice and dust down to a depth of about 1.5 km over a 200 km-wide area, and featured an anomalous area measuring 20-km wide. As Roberto Orosei, the principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:

“This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments. This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered.”

After analyzing the properties of the reflected radar signals and taking into account the composition of the layered deposits and expected temperature profiles below the surface, the scientists concluded that the 20-km wide feature is an interface between the ice and a stable body of liquid water. For MARSIS to be able to detect such a patch of water, it would need to be at least several tens of centimeters thick.

These findings also raise the possibility of there being life on Mars, both now and in the past. This is based on research that found microbial life in Lake Vostok, which is located some 4 km (2.5 mi) below the ice in Antarctica. If life can thrive in salty, subglacial environments on Earth, then it is possible that they could survive on Mars as well. Determining if this is the case will be the purpose of existing and future missions to Mars.

The MARSIS instrument on the Mars Express is a ground penetrating radar sounder used to look for subsurface water and ice. Credit: ESA

As Dmitri Titov, one of the Mars Express project scientist, explained:

“The long duration of Mars Express, and the exhausting effort made by the radar team to overcome many analytical challenges, enabled this much-awaited result, demonstrating that the mission and its payload still have a great science potential. This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbour planet and its habitability.”

The Mars Express launched on June 2nd, 2003, and will celebrate 15 years in orbit of Mars by December 25th this year. In the coming years, it will be joined by the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover, and a number of other scientific experiments. These missions will pave the way for a potential crewed mission, which NASA is planning to mount by the 2030s.

If there is indeed liquid water to be found on Mars, it will go a long way towards facilitating future research and even an ongoing human presence on the surface. And if there is still life on Mars, the careful research of its ecosystems will help address the all-important question of how and when life emerged in the Solar System.

Further Reading: ESA, Science

ExoMars Has Sent Back its First Images From Mars

On October 19th, 2016, the European Space Agency’s Exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) mission established orbit around Mars. Consisting of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, the purpose of this mission is to investigate Mars for past signs of life. And whereas the Schiaparelli unfortunately crashed during deployment, the TGO has managed to begin its mission ahead of schedule.

A few weeks ago, the satellite achieved a near circular orbit around Mars after performing a series of braking maneuvers. Since that time, the orbiter’s Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) took a stunning image of the surface. This picture was not only the TGO’s first image of Mars, it was also a test to see if the orbiter is ready to being its main mission on April 28th.

The image captured a 40 km- (25 mi) long segment of the Korolev Crater, which is located high in Mars’ northern hemisphere. The image was a composite of three images in different colors that were taken simultaneously on April 15th, 2018, which were then assembled to produce this color image. The bright material that appears at the edge of the crater is water ice.

The ExoMars Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, CaSSIS, captured this view of the rim of Korolev crater (73.3ºN/165.9ºE). Copyright ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

As Antoine Pommerol, a member of the CaSSIS science team working on the calibration of the data, explained in a recent ESA press release:

“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was given the lighting conditions. It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”

Prior to the test phase, the camera team transmitted new software to the TGO, and after a few minor issues, they determined that the instrument was ready to work. The camera is one of four instruments on the TGO, which also carries two spectrometer suites and a neutron detector. The spectrometers began their science mission on April 21st by taking the first sample of the atmosphere to see how its molecules absorb sunlight.

By doing this, the TGO hopes to determine the chemical composition of Mars atmosphere and find evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. Eventually, the camera will help characterize features on the surface that could be related to trace gas sources. Hence the importance of this recent test.

ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander seperating in orbit of Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

“We aim to fully automate the image production process,” said Nicolas Thomas, the camera’s principal investigator from the University of Bern. “Once we achieve this, we can distribute the data quickly to the science community for analysis.”

A lot of challenges lie ahead, which includes a long period of data collection to bring out the details of rare (or yet to be discovered) trace gases in Mars’ atmosphere. This is necessary since trace gases (as the name would suggest) are present in only very small amounts – i.e. less than 1% of the volume of the planet’s atmosphere. But as Håkan Svedhem – the ESA’s TGO project scientist – indicated, the test image was a good start.

“We are excited to finally be starting collecting data at Mars with this phenomenal spacecraft,” he said. “The test images we have seen so far certainly set the bar high.”

By 2020, the second part of the ExoMars mission is scheduled to launch. This will consist of a Russian surface platform and a European rover landing on the surface in support of a science mission that is expected to last into 2022 or longer. Alongside NASA’s proposed Mars 2020 rover, the Red Planet is due to have several more visitors in the coming years!

Further Reading: ESA

ESA’s ExoMars has Completed its Aerobraking Maneuvers to Bring it Into a Circular 400 km Orbit Around Mars

In March of 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission into space. A joint project between the ESA and Roscosmos, this two-part mission consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, both of which arrived in orbit around Mars in October of 2016. While Schiaparelli crashed while attempting to land, the TGO has gone on to accomplish some impressive feats.

For example, in March of 2017, the orbiter commenced a series of aerobraking maneuvers, where it started to lower its orbit to enter Mars’ thin atmosphere and slow itself down. According to Armelle Hubault, the Spacecraft Operations Engineer on the TGO flight control team, the ExoMars mission has made tremendous progress and is well on its way to establishing its final orbit around the Red Planet.

TGO’s mission has been to study the surface of Mars, characterize the distribution of water and chemicals beneath the surface, study the planet’s geological evolution, identify future landing sites, and to search for possible biosignatures of past Martian life. Once it has established its final orbit around Mars – 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface – the TGO will be ideally positioned to conduct these studies.

Visualization of the ExoMars mission’s Trace Gas Orbiter conducting aerobraking maneuvers to March of 2018. Credit: ESA

The ESA also released a graphic (shown above) demonstrating the successive orbits the TGO has made since it began aerobraking – and will continue to make until March of 2018. Whereas the red dot indicates the orbiter (and the blue line its current orbit), the grey lines show successive reductions in the TGO’s orbital period. The bold lines denote a reduction of 1 hour while the thin lines denote a reduction of 30 minutes.

Essentially, a single aerobraking maneuver consist of the orbiter passing into Mars’ upper atmosphere and relying on its solar arrays to generate tiny amounts of drag. Over time, this process slows the craft down and gradually lowers its orbit around Mars. As Armelle Hubault recently posted on the ESA’s rocket science blog:

“We started on the biggest orbit with an apocentre (the furthest distance from Mars during each orbit) of 33 200 km and an orbit of 24 hr in March 2017, but had to pause last summer due to Mars being in conjunction. We recommenced aerobraking in August 2017, and are on track to finish up in the final science orbit in mid-March 2018. As of today, 30 Jan 2018, we have slowed ExoMars TGO by 781.5 m/s. For comparison, this speed is more than twice as fast as the speed of a typical long-haul jet aircraft.”

Earlier this week, the orbiter passed through the point where it made its closest approach to the surface in its orbit (the pericenter passage, represented by the red line). During this approach, the craft dipped well into Mars’ uppermost atmosphere, which dragged the aircraft and slowed it down further. In its current elliptical orbit, it reaches a maximum distance of 2700 km (1677 mi) from Mars (it’s apocenter).

Visualization of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter aerobraking at Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Despite being a decades-old practice, aerobraking remains a significant technical challenge for mission teams. Every time a spacecraft passes through a planet’s atmosphere, its flight controllers need to make sure that its orientation is just right in order to slow down and ensure that the craft remains stable. If their calculations are off by even a little, the spacecraft could begin to spin out of control and veer off course. As Hubault explained:

“We have to adjust our pericentre height regularly, because on the one hand, the martian atmosphere varies in density (so sometimes we brake more and sometimes we brake less) and on the other hand, martian gravity is not the same everywhere (so sometimes the planet pulls us down and sometimes we drift out a bit). We try to stay at about 110 km altitude for optimum braking effect. To keep the spacecraft on track, we upload a new set of commands every day – so for us, for flight dynamics and for the ground station teams, it’s a very demanding time!”

The next step for the flight control team is to use the spacecraft’s thrusters to maneuver the spacecraft into its final orbit (represented by the green line on the diagram). At this point, the spacecraft will be in its final science and operation data relay orbit, where it will be in a roughly circular orbit about 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface of Mars. As Hubault wrote, the process of bringing the TGO into its final orbit remains a challenging one.

“The main challenge at the moment is that, since we never know in advance how much the spacecraft is going to be slowed during each pericentre passage, we also never know exactly when it is going to reestablish contact with our ground stations after pointing back to Earth,” she said. “We are working with a 20-min ‘window’ for acquisition of signal (AOS), when the ground station first catches TGO’s signal during any given station visibility, whereas normally for interplanetary missions we have a firm AOS time programmed in advance.”

Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Exomars 2020 rover, which is expected to land on the surface of Mars by the Spring of 2o21. Credit:ESA

With the spacecraft’s orbital period now shortened to less than 3 hours, the flight control team has to go through this exercise 8 times a day now. Once the TGO has reached its final orbit (by March of 2018), the orbiter will remain there until 2022, serving as a telecommunications relay satellite for future missions. One of its tasks will be to relay data from the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, which will consist of a European rover and a Russian surface platform being deployed the surface of Mars in the Spring of 2021.

Along with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, this rover/lander pair will be the latest in a long line of robotic missions looking to unlock the secrets of Mars past. In addition, these missions will conduct crucial investigations that will pave the way for eventual sample return missions to Earth, not to mention crewed to the surface!

Further Reading: ESA

New Research Says “Levitating” Sands Explain how Mars Got its Landscape

Mars modern landscape is something of a paradox. It’s many surface features are very similar to those on Earth that are caused by water-borne erosion. But for the life of them, scientists cannot imagine how water could have flown on Mars’ cold and desiccated surface for most of Mars’ history. Whereas Mars was once a warmer, wetter place, it has had a very thin atmosphere for billions of years now, which makes water flow and erosion highly unlikely.

In fact, while the surface of Mars periodically becomes warm enough to allow for ice to thaw, liquid water would boil once exposed to the thin atmosphere. However, in a new study led by an international team of researchers from the UK, France and Switzerland, it has been determined that a different kind of transport process involving the sublimation of water ice could have led to the Martian landscape becoming what it is today.

The study, which was led Dr. Jan Raack – a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at The Open University – was recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Titled “Water Induced Sediment Levitation Enhances Downslope Transport on Mars”, this research study consisted of experiments that tested how processes on Mars’ surface could allow water transport without it being in liquid form.

Reull Vallis, the river-like structure captured by the ESA’s Mars Express probe, is believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant martian past. Credit and copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

To conduct their experiments, the team used the Mars Simulation Chamber, an instrument at The Open University that is capable of simulating the atmospheric conditions on Mars. This involved lowering the atmospheric pressure inside the chamber to what is normal for Mars – about 7 mbar, compared to 1000 mbar (1 bar or 100 kilopascals) here on Earth – while also adjusting temperatures.

On Mars, temperatures range from a low of -143 °C (-255 °F) during winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) at the equator during midday in the summer. Having recreated these conditions, the team found that when water ice exposed to the simulated Martian atmosphere, it would not simply melt. Instead, it would become unstable and begin violently boiling off.

However, the team also found that this process would be capable of moving large amounts of sand and sediment, which would effectively “levitate” on the boiling water. This means that, compared to Earth, relatively small amounts of liquid water are capable of moving sediment across the surface of Mars. These levitating pockets of sand and debris would be capable of forming tje large dunes, gullies, recurring slope lineae, and other features observed on Mars.

In the past, scientists have indicated how these features were the result of sediment transportation down slopes, but were unclear as to the mechanisms behind them. As Dr. Jan Raack explained in a OUNews press release:

“Our research has discovered that this levitation effect caused by boiling water under low pressure enables the rapid transport of sand and sediment across the surface. This is a new geological phenomenon, which doesn’t happen on Earth, and could be vital to understanding similar processes on other planetary surfaces.”

Illustration of the ESA Exomars 2020 Rover, which will explore the Red Planet in search for signs of ancient life. Credit:ESA

Through these experiments, Dr. Raack and his colleagues were able to shed light on how conditions on Mars could allow for features that we tend to associate with flowing water here on Earth. In addition to helping to resolve a somewhat contentious debate concerning Mars’ geological history and evolution, this study is also significant when it comes to future exploration missions.

Dr. Raack acknowledges the need for more research to confirm their study’s conclusions, and indicated that the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 Rover will be well-situated to conduct it once it is deployed :

“This is a controlled laboratory experiment, however, the research shows that the effects of relatively small amounts of water on Mars in forming features on the surface may have been widely underestimated. We need to carry out more research into how water levitates on Mars, and missions such as the ESA ExoMars 2020 Rover will provide vital insight to help us better understand our closest neighbour.”

The study was co-authored by scientists from the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the University of Bern, and the University of Nantes. The initial concept was developed by Susan J. Conway of the University of Nantes, and was funded by a grant from the Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure, which is part the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program.

Be sure to check out this video of Dr. Jan Raack explaining their experiment as well, courtesy of The Open University:

Further Reading: OUNews, Nature

‘Spectacular’ First Images and Data Released from ExoMars Orbiter

The first images taken by the newest mission to Mars have been released, and the teams behind the instruments on ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter are ecstatic.

“The first images we received are absolutely spectacular – and it was only meant to be a test,” said Nicolas Thomas, who leads the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System at the University of Bern.

The ExoMars TGO arrived in orbit at Mars over a month ago, on October 19, 2016 along with the Schiaparelli lander, which unfortunately crashed on the surface of Mars.

“A lot of public attention has been on the failed landing of Schiaparelli,” said Thomas, “but TGO has been working really well so we have been extremely busy in the past month.”

Scientists and engineers have been turning on and checking out the various instruments on TGO as it orbits in an initial elliptical orbit that takes it from just 250 km above the surface of Mars to nearly 100,000 km every 4.2 days.

During November 20-28 it spent two orbits testing its four science instruments for the first time and making important calibration measurements. A total of 11 images were returned during the first close fly-by during that period, which you can see in the video below.

The views show Hebes Chasma, an 8 km-deep trough in the northern most part of Valles Marineris, during the spacecraft’s closest approach.

“We saw Hebes Chasma at 2.8 metres per pixel” Thomas said. “That’s a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 km per hour and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich.”

The first stereo reconstruction of a small area in Noctis Labyrinthus. The image gives an altitude map of the region with a resolution of less than 20 meters. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE
The first stereo reconstruction of a small area in Noctis Labyrinthus. The image gives an altitude map of the region with a resolution of less than 20 meters. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE

The team tested the color and stereo capabilities of CaSSIS were also successfully tested. Below is a 3D reconstruction of a region called Noctis Labyrinthus that was produced from a stereo pair of images. This region is also part of Valles Marineris and has a system of deep, steep-walled valleys.

Thomas said these first images don’t show much color because the surfaces in this area are covered with dust so there are few color changes evident. “We will have to wait a little until something colourful passes under the spacecraft,” he said. Until then, the pictures will be black and white.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos. ExoMars will continue the search for biological and geologic activity on Mars, which may have had a much warmer, wetter climate in the past. The TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists that will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

Methane provides the most interest because it has been detected periodically on Mars. On Earth, methane is produced primarily by biological activity, and to a smaller extent by geological processes such as some hydrothermal reactions.

First detection of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter’s Atmospheric Chemistry Suite. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/ACS/IKI.
First detection of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter’s Atmospheric Chemistry Suite. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/ACS/IKI.

The two instruments that will be used to look for methane and other gases were also tested. During the test observations last week, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite focused on carbon dioxide, which makes up a large volume of the planet’s atmosphere, while the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery instrument looked for water.

The teams also coordinated observations with ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as they will do future corresponding observations during the mission.

Starting in March, 2017, TGO will use Mars atmosphere to perform aerobraking to gradually slow the spacecraft down to reach a roughly circular orbit 400 km above Mars. The aerobraking process will take between 9-12 months, with the primary science phase will beginning near the end of 2017.

The CaSSIS camera team said nominal operations will have the instrument acquiring 12-20 high resolution stereo and color images of selected targets per day.

Sources: ESA, University of Bern.

Best Photos Yet of the Mars Lander’s Demise

A closeup of the dark, approximately circular crater about 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter marking the crash of the Schiaparelli test lander on Mars. The photo was taken on October 25 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Lander (MRO). Credit:
A closeup of the dark, approximately circular crater about 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter that marks the crash of the Schiaparelli test lander on Mars. The new, higher-resolution photo was taken on October 25 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Lander (MRO). A hint of an upraised rim is visible along the crater’s lower left side. The tiny white specks may be pieces of the lander that broke away on impact. The odd dark curving line has yet to be explained.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the most powerful telescope for observing Mars? A telephoto lens on the HiRise camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that can resolve features as small as 3 feet (1-meter) across. NASA used that camera to provide new details of the scene near the Martian equator where Europe’s Schiaparelli test lander crashed to the surface last week.

The Schiaparelli test lander was protected by its heat shield as it descended through the Martian atmosphere at high speed. Credit: ESA
The Schiaparelli test lander was protected by its heat shield as it descended through the Martian atmosphere at high speed. Credit: ESA

During an October 25 imaging run HiRise photographed three locations where hardware from the lander hit the ground all within about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) of each other. The dark crater in the photo above is what you’d expect if a 660-pound object (lander) slammed into dry soil at more than 180 miles an hour (300 km/h). The crater’s about a foot and a half (half a meter) deep and haloed by dark rays of fresh Martian soil excavated by the impact.

But what about that long dark arc northeast of the crater?  Could it have been created by a piece of hardware jettisoned when Schiaparelli’s propellant tank exploded? The rays are curious too. The European Space Agency says that the lander fell almost vertically when the thrusters cut out, yet the asymmetrical nature of the streaks — much longer to the west than east — would seem to indicate an oblique impact. It’s possible, according to the agency, that the hydrazine propellant tanks in the module exploded preferentially in one direction upon impact, throwing debris from the planet’s surface in the direction of the blast, but more analysis is needed. Additional white pixels in the image could be lander pieces or just noise.

This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event and our highest resolution of the scene to date. Annotations by the author. Click for a full-resolution image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event and our highest resolution of the scene to date. Click for a full-resolution image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the wider shot, several other pieces of lander-related flotsam are visible. About 0.8 mile (1.4 km) eastward, you can see the tiny crater dug out when the heat shield smacked the ground. Several bright spots might be pieces of its shiny insulation. About 0.6 mile (0.9 kilometer) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are thought to be the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell.  NASA plans additional images to be taken from different angle to help better interpret what we see.

The last happy scene for the lander when it still dangled from its chute before dropping and slamming into the surface. Credit: ESA
Schiaparelli dangles from its parachute in this artist’s view. A software error caused the chute to deploy too soon. Credit: ESA

The test lander is part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2016 mission, which placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars on Oct. 19. The orbiter will investigate the atmosphere and surface of Mars in search of organic molecules and provide relay communications capability for landers and rovers on Mars. Science studies won’t begin until the spacecraft trims its orbit to a 248-mile-high circle through aerobraking, which is expected to take about 13 months.

Everything started out well with Schiaparelli, which successfully transmitted data back to Earth during its descent through the atmosphere, the reason we know that the heat shield separated and the parachute deployed as planned. Unfortunately, the chute and its protective back shell ejected ahead of time followed by a premature firing of the thrusters. And instead of burning for the planned 30 seconds, the rockets shut off after only 3. Why? Scientists believe a software error told the lander it was much closer to the ground than it really was, tripping the final landing sequence too early.

Landing on Mars has never been easy. We’ve done flybys, attempted to orbit the planet or land on its surface 44 times. 15 of those have been landing attempts, with 7 successes: Vikings 1 and 2, Mars Pathfinder, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Phoenix Lander and Curiosity rover. We’ll be generous and call it 8 if you count the 1971 landing of Mars 3 by the then-Soviet Union. It reached the surface safely but shut down after just 20 seconds.

Mars can be harsh, but it forces us to get smart.

**** Want to learn more about Mars and how to track it across the sky? My new book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, which will be published on Nov. 8, covers planets, satellites, the aurora and much more. You can pre-order it right now at these online stores. Just click an icon to go to the site of your choice – Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. It’s currently available at the first two outlets for a very nice discount.

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