The Mysteriously Missing Mars Rover

Shelby Rogers

On Thursday evening, scientists with the ExoMars mission anticipated confirmation that their latest rover had a successful touchdown on Mars.

But it never came. In fact, the Schiaparelli lander vanished.

schiaparelli[Image Courtesy of European Space Agency]

Everything up until the touchdown seemed positively perfect for the team. The parachute unfurled at the right time. It had managed not to get incinerated upon entering Mars's atmosphere. But the European and Russian teams did not expect to hear radio silence in the last minute before they lost connection.

"Mars exploration is hard, and that's one reason why we do it," David Parker of the European Space Agency told reporters Thursday.

Scientists are still trying to figure out with data captured before loss of contact from the lander's sensors what happened. Some scientists said the lander lost its parachute early, speeding up the descent. The thrusters used to help slow that speed were also turned off too soon.

But there's still hope, as this isn't the first (nor the last) time a lost lander has reappeared. In January 2015, the European Space Agency said they found the Beagle-2 lander which had been missing since 2003.

tgo_exomars[Image Courtesy of European Space Agency]

Despite the loss of one rover, another one landed right behind Schiaparelli. The Trace Gas Orbiter landed successfully. It traveled with Schiaparelli until Oct. 16 when it separated so the latter could start its descent to the Red Planet's surface.

TGO will relay data from ExoMars 2020 rover and do some science work of its own. It's primary function is to study methane on Mars. Methane on our red neighbor could mean a number of things. It could come from geological processes within the planet itself like from some sort of undiscovered plate movement.

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exomars-tgo-mars[Image Courtesy of European Space Agency]

The most intriguing explanation would be methane resulting from biological processes. Astrobiologists hint that methane could stem from living things on Mars (in the same way that cows produce methane when they fart).

TGO will combine multiple trips around the surface and the atmosphere to produce 3-D renderings of Mars's atmospheric breakdown. Since TGO will be there for nearly four years, it will also account for any changes the atmosphere encounters.

That is assuming, of course, that it doesn't meet the fate of its missing travel companion.


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