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Just what Europe needs – another bungled exit: Mars lander goes AWOL

Martian probe goes silent mid-descent, Juno also goes dark

By Richard Chirgwin, 19 Oct 2016

It's not a great day for space watchers. The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli Mars lander may have failed during its descent to the Red Planet.

Meanwhile, NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter has gone into "safe mode" unexpectedly.

The Schiaparelli lander was carried to Mars from Earth by the ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which at least managed to get into orbit around the Red Planet, given Europe some joy.

The TGO's orbit insertion burn ran from 13:05 to 15:24 GMT, October 19. Schiaparelli. The plan for Schiaparelli – aka the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) – was that it would enter the Martian atmosphere 107 minutes after TGO began circling the alien world.

The EDM lander's signal prior to and during the descent was picked up by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune, India.

At first, things went to schedule:

In the last moments of its descent, however, the probe went silent – the Earth-bound antenna at Pune and the nearby Mars Express orbiter reported a loss of signal.

Before that, the ESA team observed signal "spikes" that correlated with key events of the descent. First, signal was lost due to plasma noise as the EDM hit the atmosphere. The signal was re-detected after that, and there were spikes that ESA operations reported as indicating parachute deployment, heat shield separation, and powered descent.

The ESA's media statement gives what it expected to happen in more detail:

"The 577-kg EDM was released by the TGO at 14:42 GMT on 16 October. Schiaparelli was programmed to autonomously perform an automated landing sequence, with parachute deployment and front heat shield release between 11 and 7 km, followed by a retrorocket braking starting at 1,100 metres from the ground, and a final fall from a height of 2 metres protected by a crushable structure."

The EDM was also in contact with the Mars Express orbiter, which has sent back recorded signals now under analysis by ESA engineers.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also made a pass over the planned EDM landing site.

The status at the time of writing is that ESA now has two orbiters around Mars, but it looks like America remains the only country to have successfully deployed science to the Martian surface.

The ESA has scheduled a media conference in Germany for 10:00am GMT on October 20.

Juno, can you hear us?

Meanwhile, NASA has just held a press conference to set space boffins clutching their pearls: the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter has entered "safe mode."

It happened at 10:47pm Pacific Daylight Time on October 18.

NASA's media statement says a software performance monitor rebooted Juno's computer.

It says the reboot was successful, the spacecraft is healthy, and high-rate data communication has been restored, but Juno missed the data collection planned for today's flyby.

Instruments have been shut down while the spacecraft conducts flight software diagnostics, and project manager Rick Nybakken says "we are working on our standard recovery procedure."

NASA has plenty of time to set things straight, with the next flyby due on December 11. ®

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