ESA Investigation Reveals Cause of Schiaparelli Crash

A navigational anomaly doomed the Schiaparelli lander. Will its data prevent future lander mishaps?

An artist's impression of the Schiaparelli lander in mid-descent. (Image courtesy of ESA.)

An artist’s impression of the Schiaparelli lander in mid-descent. (Image courtesy of ESA.)

The Schiaparelli Saga continues.

Last month, the European Space Agency (ESA) experienced a devastating loss. On October 19, the agency’s ExoMars Schiaparelli lander, a probe built to test the mission and design parameters for the future ExoMars missions, plowed into the Martian surface, eliminating any chance that the mission’s engineering and design goals would be met.

Since that fateful day, the ESA has been hard at work investigating the cause of the lander’s crash. In its most recent update, the Agency stated that the lander met its untimely end due to a navigation system error that estimated the craft’s altitude to be negative, or in laymen’s terms: underground.

According to the ESA, “As Schiaparelli descended under its parachute, its radar Doppler altimeter functioned correctly and the measurements were included in the guidance, navigation and control system. However, saturation – maximum measurement – of the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) had occurred shortly after the parachute deployment. The IMU measures the rotation rates of the vehicle. Its output was generally as predicted except for this event, which persisted for about one second – longer than would be expected.”

With this navigational anomaly in tow, the lander’s parachute and backshell were jettisoned prematurely and its braking thrusters were fired.

At the time of the event the lander was 3.7km above the Martian surface.

Moments later, Schiaparelli was no more.

While the ESA’s original engineering and design goals were dashed by a system failure, the agency has stated that Schiaparelli’s crash was not a total loss.  David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, noted that “[W]e will have learned much from Schiaparelli that will directly contribute to the second ExoMars mission being developed with our international partners for launch in 2020.”

Specifically, the data generated by Schiaparelli during its entry will be used to guide a course for the ESA’s next Mars mission.

In the coming years, a more thorough analysis of the failures that led to the Schiaparelli lander will be undertaken, but for now, the ESA believes that they’ve found the culprit for their Martian mishap.

For more Martian news, find out how Elon Musk plans to take humans to Mars and beyond.