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The ExoMars lander may have exploded when it hit the surface of Mars

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A black spot photographed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

schiaparelli ESA

The European Space Agency says that its Schiaparelli lander, the ExoMars spacecraft that attempted to land on Mars on Wednesday, may have exploded when it hit the surface. The ESA reached that conclusion after pictures taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show a black spot in the area where the probe should have landed.

Schiaparelli was meant to test ESA’s landing technology in view of a future rover the space agency wants to land on Mars in 2020. The probe was equipped with a heat shield, a parachute, and a series of thrusters to help slow its 13,000-miles-per-hour fall through the thin Martian atmosphere. But signals from Schiaparelli cut out before it reached the ground, leaving scientists wondering what had gone wrong.

Schiaparelli’s landing site.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Arizona State University

The photos captured by the MRO’s low-resolution CTX camera show two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May. One feature is bright, and ESA thinks it’s Schiaparelli’s parachute. The second feature is a fuzzy dark patch roughly 49 feet by 31 feet in size. ESA thinks that’s a sign that the lander crashed on the surface after its thrusters switched off prematurely; the space agency estimates the impact happened at 186 miles per hour.

There are lots of ways to confirm this using other observational techniques. Next week, the Mars orbiter’s highest resolution camera will take more pictures of the same place, which may reveal more about Schiaparelli’s fate. ESA is also analyzing data from the lander’s mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which successfully put itself in orbit around Mars on Wednesday. Another source of information are the measurements made with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope, an experimental telescope array located near Pune, India. So we should have a good idea about what happened quite soon.

Today’s photos aren’t good news, but it’s still too early to say exactly what happened during the probe’s quick descent onto Mars, nicknamed the "six minutes of terror" by ESA. Engineers are analyzing the data "day and night," the ESA says.