On October 20, it is believed that the European Mars lander, which was named Schiaparelli after the Italian astronomer, crashed to the surface of the red planet on the day it was expected to land. The project, a collaborative effort between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, would have marked the first successful Mars landing for the ESA.
It is generally accepted that Mars exploration has a high failure rate; the calculations at work in the trip from Earth to its closest neighbor—which takes around 300 days—are immense and complex. A spacecraft intended for Mars can only be launched during an optimal window every two years when the two planets are in closest proximity to one another. There are additionally many things that can go wrong in space travel. What failed in the Schiaparelli case is thought to be a computer glitch that initiated parachute launch and landing too early. The lander crashed at a speed of over 300 km/h, according to the ESA, leaving a crater the size of a car as seen in the photos taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
However, ESA Director Jan Woerner does not see the mission as a failure. “This is typical for a test,” the director stressed to reporters. The second half of the project, the launch of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter into Martian orbit, went successfully, and is set to be instrumental in the reception of the ESA Mars Rover, which is planned for 2020. “We did this in order to get data on how to land on Mars with European technology,” continued Woerner. “Therefore, all the data we will get […] will be used to understand how to manage the next landing when we go with the rover.”
Schiaparelli was built in Italy while the orbiter that delivered it was built in France. Much of the technology on board was drawn from scientists in Finland, Spain, France, and the U.K. The crash landing of Schiaparelli is a disappointment in the advancement of collaborative European space exploration; to date, the only rovers on the Martian surface are from the United States. The NASA-directed Opportunity has been operating for 10 years beyond original expectations. Regarding NASA’s funding, withdrawal of support for that program is not unlikely.