A long, wild ride for European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and its lander, Schiaparelli, has ended in an apparent crash of the Schiaparelli on Mars on October 21, 2016. The TGO, however, is in orbit around the planet and proceeding with its mission.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted the supposed crash site, characterized by a bright feature consistent with the lander’s 39-foot-wide parachute, and a 50-by-130-foot dark patch that may have been created when the lander crashed. ExoMars team members say that data from the lander shows the descent-slowing thrusters did not fire as long as they should have, leading to a hard impact onto the planet’s surface, which could have then led to an explosion caused by still-full fuel tanks.
“A Solid ‘A’”
In spite of the rough ending to the Schiaparelli’s mission, ESA officials still give the ExoMars mission a solid “A,” overall, according to a report by Space.com. The TGO began its planned initial orbit around Mars the same morning the lander crashed. The TGO will collect science calibration data during two different orbits in November 2016, according to the ESA, and will begin planned aerobraking maneuvers in March 2017, continuing through the year to conclude in a 400-km altitude circular orbit around Mars.
The TGO: Its Primary Mission…to Seek out Signs of Life
The TGO will begin its primary mission of studying the Martian atmosphere. The craft holds a scientific payload with instruments from Russia and Europe, designed to collect information on the Martian atmosphere and seek evidence of gasses such as methane, which hold biological importance and could give indications of life beneath the planet’s surface. The TGO’s equipment may be able to identify the nature and location of the sources producing the gasses.
The TGO will also act as a telecommunications relay station for the ExoMars 2020 rover and other assets on the planet’s surface. The ESA remains in full control of the TGO through the space communications network of ESA's European Space Operations Centre.