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NASA satellite spots remains of Mars lander, which may have exploded during crash landing

Landing on Mars
This artist impression provided by the European Space Agency shows the Schiaparelli module firing its thrusters as it lands.
(M.Thiebaut / ATG-medialab / ESA via AP)

A NASA satellite in orbit around Mars appears to have spotted the remains of a European probe that crash-landed on the Red Planet on Wednesday.

New pictures taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show a large, dark elliptical spot on the Martian surface that was probably made by the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander, NASA said Friday. 

As Schiaparelli descended toward the surface, its thrusters shut off earlier than planned, the ESA said. That forced the craft to free-fall from a height of 1.2 to 2.5 miles above ground, at a speed in excess of 185 miles per hour.

Since the thruster propellant tanks were probably still full, the lander may have “exploded on impact,” ESA said.

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The gash imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera measures about 130 feet long and 50 feet wide, NASA said.

Nearby is a bright spot that could be Schiaparelli’s parachute, NASA said. Its location is 3.3 miles west of where ESA had hoped to land the craft.

Neither of these features appeared on Mars prior to Wednesday.

Before and after views of the suspected Schiaparelli landing site on Mars.
Before and after views of the suspected Schiaparelli landing site on Mars.
(ESA )

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Now that the space agencies think they have identified the lander, NASA will have its satellite take more detailed pictures with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. That could give engineers more clues about what went wrong on Wednesday. 

Schiaparelli sent back limited data during its descent, but many questions remain.

Although the landing didn’t go as planned, another part of the ESA’s ExoMars 2016 mission was successful. The Trace Gas Orbiter was able to enter Mars’ orbit as planned. That brings the total number of spacecraft circling the Red Planet to six.

TGO will search the Martian atmosphere for chemical signatures of biological or geological activity on the planet below. Of particular interest is methane; on Earth, methane is a byproduct of biological activity.

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UPDATES:

1:40 p.m.: This story has been updated with additional details about the malfunction believed to have caused the Schiaparelli lander to crash and about the Trace Gas Orbiter.

This story was originally published at 10:15 a.m.


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