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Scientists have lost contact with the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander

Scientists have lost contact with the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander

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The European Space Agency says it's lost contact with the Schiaparelli lander scheduled to land on Mars yesterday. The exact fate of the craft is still unknown, but mission handlers stopped receiving radio signal from Schiaparelli during its descent to the Red Planet, roughly 50 seconds before it was due to touch down.

Early indications suggest the module "successfully completed most steps of its 6-minute descent through the martian atmosphere," said ESA, but the craft's thrusters "switched off sooner than expected." In all likelihood this led to the lander crashing into the planet's surface.

While Schiaparelli may be lost, the mission itself was not unsuccessful. The lander was sent to Mars as a test of European landing technologies ahead of the planned ExoMars rover mission in 2020 — a project that would see the ESA send a robot similar to NASA's Curiosity to the planet's surface.

"From the engineering standpoint, it’s what we want from a test, and we have extremely valuable data to work with," said David Parker, ESA’s director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration, in a press statement. He added that data from the craft would allow the ESA to understand "why the soft landing did not occur," but that the scientists couldn't "speculate further" on the craft's fate at this time.

Better yet, ESA still has skin in the game in the form of the Trace Gas Orbiter — the spacecraft that delivered Schiaparelli to Mars and that is currently in orbit around the planet. Scientists can use this to collect new data on the martian atmosphere, as well as operate as a communications relay for any future rover missions.