Anxious delay as Europe's Mars Schiaparelli probe signal vanishes

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Space Scientists are facing an anxious wait before they discover if Europe’s first Mars landing has been a success after they revealed the signal from the probe was lost tonight (Wednesday).

The European Space Agency (ESA) from the operations centre in Germany said the fate of the Schiaparelli lander may not be known until Thursday.

Equipped with rocket thrusters, a heatshield, and a parachute to help land intact, the probe was launched to pave the way for a future European rover to land on the Red Planet in the next five years.

Paolo Ferri, head of missions operations at the ESA, said: “We saw the signal through the atmospheric phase, the descent phase - at a certain point it stopped.

“This was unexpected but we couldn’t conclude anything from that because this very weak signal picked up on ground was coming from an experimental tool.”

He added: “It is clear these are not good signs.”

The anxious wait to see whether Schiaparelli survived the descent to the Earth’s neighbouring planet comes after the failure of ESA’s Beagle-2 lander’s on Mars in 2003.

That landing probe stopped working just minutes after arriving on Mars’s surface, despite remaining intact after the descent.

But Mr Ferri said the ESA needs more information to find out whether the latest Schiaparelli probe’s landing was a success.

He said: “We waited for the Mars Express measurement which was taken in parallel.

“It was of the same kind, it was only recording the radio signal.

“The signal came through at 6.30pm and confirmed exactly the same.

“The signal went through the majority of the descent phase, but it stopped at a certain point that we reckon was before the landing.

“To conclude more on this, because there can be many, many reasons for that, we need more information. It’s clear these are not good signs.”

Schiaparelli separated from its own mothership, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), on Sunday after a 500m km and seven-month journey through space.

The TGO mothership is now orbiting Mars and if it stays on course, scientists hope it will be used to examine the behaviour of gases in Mars’s atmosphere like nitrogen dioxide, methane and water vapour.

Mr Ferri added: “The TGO which successfully entered into orbit did another good job which is recording the telemetry that the EDM Schiaparelli lander was transmitting during this phase.

“It’s a lot of data - we reckon we have on board more than 20mb of data.

“We should remember this landing was a test. As part of a test you want to know what happened.

“It’s fundamental that tonight we look at this telemetry.

“I’m quite confident that (this) morning we will know.”

He added analysts would work through the night and the answer may come before a planned press conference.

Mr Ferri said their objective was to have a “very good story” before then or they would look a “bit hopeless”.

After separating from its mothership on Sunday, at 3.42pm, UK time today, Schiaparelli was due to begin a “six minutes of terror” journey through the Martian atmosphere.

During this time the probe was travelling on autopilot and mission controllers on Earth could only sit and wait - hence the “terror”.

Although it carries some instruments, Schiaparelli’s main job is to test out the Russian-designed landing system for a future ExoMars rover mission due to be launched in 2020.

Schiaparelli was due to spend about four days gathering weather data on the Red Planet, before its batteries ran out.