European Space Agency confirms Mars lander lost during descent

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ESA lost signals to Schiaparelli shortly before it was expected to touchdown on Mars

The probe would have been ESA's first to land on Mars

CNN  — 

The European Space Agency (ESA) has confirmed the Schiaparelli spacecraft, which was expected to land on Mars on Wednesday, has been lost.

During a press conference on Thursday, scientists said that Schiaparelli stopped transmitting around 50 seconds before the expected landing.

The agency suspects something went wrong when the parachute was jettisoned: “The ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete,” it said in a statement.

ESA’s Director General, Jan Wörner, said Schiaparelli’s primary role was to test whether they could successfully land a probe on Mars.

“Recording the data during the descent was part of that, and it is important we can learn what happened, in order to prepare for the future,” Wörner said.

David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration said it’s what they wanted from a test.

“We have data coming back that allows us to fully understand the steps that did occur, and why the soft landing did not occur,” he said.

The probe was equipped with nine thrusters that were due to be activated for the last 30 seconds to help cushion the landing. But while they were confirmed to have been briefly activated, the agency believes they switched off sooner than expected.

The anxious wait

Scientists with ESA were anxiously waiting for news from Schiaparelli yesterday.

After a high-speed, fiery descent through the Martian atmosphere, scientists at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, did not get a signal back from the 1,272 pound (577 kilogram) probe.

The mission, a joint venture between ESA’s ExoMars program and the Russian state corporation Roscosmos, was primarily designed to test ESA’s ability to land on Mars. The agency has a bigger mission, the ExoMars rover project, slated for 2020.

Sister ship is safe

Schiaparelli’s companion craft, an orbiter with a much longer mission, successfully made it to orbit on Wednesday. The Trace Gas Orbiter will investigate the source of methane on Mars, which could be a sign of life or geological processes.

The orbiter adds to a fleet of spacecraft that are looking for signs of life on our neighboring planet.

The presence of methane is a signature of life on Earth, so the orbiting spacecraft will be trying to detect it and determine where it is coming from.

Adam Stevens, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh and the UK Centre for Astrobiology said methane may be produced by other processes but the mission will help “rule out some possibilities … to tease out what is going on.”

The Trace Gas Oribiter is expected to operate until 2020.

When will humans get to Mars?

While ESA continues its attempt to land on Mars, the United States is moving ahead with plans to send humans to the planet.

Writing for CNN, US President Barack Obama spoke of America’s aim to put humans on Mars in the 2030s with the eventual aim of staying for an “extended time.”

Two NASA rovers continue to operate on the Martian surface – Curiosity, which arrived in 2012, and Opportunity, which has been returning images for more than 12 years. Spirit’s mission ended in 2011.

Several orbiters are learning more about Mars, and private companies have ambitious plans to launch missions there, including Space X and Mars One.

CNN’s David Gilbert contributed to this report.