The partial failure of ExoMars mission

Fantasy reconstruction of ExoMars 2016. In the foreground we can see the TGO orbiter, while in the background the aeroshell containing Schiaparelli module


Yesterday I began to write an enthusiastic post about ExoMars mission while I was following the live coverage of the event from ESA website, at least until the news that demonstration module Schiaparelli failed to communicate with Earth at the expected time.

Thus I decided to wait until today before completing the post, with the hope to hear some good news but, as you might already know, in vain.

Then I’m going to write about the partial failure of the mission but first a brief overview of ExoMars:

the European Mars exploration program is a collaboration between European Space Agency and Russian space agency Roscosmos aimed to search signs of alien life under the surface of the red planet. It is divided in two phases:

  1. 2016 mission: a carrier called TGO – Trace Gas Orbiter – transports to Mars a demonstrator module named after the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli, who made detailed observations of Mars surface in 19th century. This module enters the planet atmosphere at about 21.000 Km/h, then it fires its retro-thrusters in order to slow down the descent and to gently land on the surface. Although it has been created as a technology demonstrator it’s equipped with a limited set of scientific sensors to perform some surface analysis. Meanwhile TGO enters a stable orbit and sends back to Earth detailed data about the composition of the atmosphere
    Schiaparelli lander. We can see the rocket engine firing in order to slow down the descent in the final phase


    Scheme of the planned descent of Schiaparelli module. Something went wrong after thruster ignition pahse.
  2. 2020 mission: a carrier transports an aeroshell, containing a surface platform and a rover, which will separate from the carrier shortly before reaching Mars atmosphere. Once landed the platform will deploy the rover. The vehicle is equipped with a drill that can dig up to two meters under the surface and extract small soil samples, with the hope to find traces of past – or present – organic life. Meanwhile TGO will support the communications with Earth.
An artistic interpretation of ExoMars 2020 rover deployment


Unfortunately, Schiaparelli didn’t make it to safely reach Mars surface. According to ESA the landing system should have fired retro-trusthers for 30 seconds in order to reduce the module speed to 4 Km/h but they only fired for few seconds. Basically it has been like throwing down a mountain cliff this expensive piece of machinery. However, as I stated before, this is not a complete failure for a couple of reasons:

  • TGO is fully functional and it is a key component for ExoMars 2020 mission
  • Schiaparelli was a technology demonstrator, more similar to a prototype than to a science lab, and it has transmitted valuable descent data which will be useful for preparing 2020 mission.

From a PNN enthusiast point of view this is the umpteenth proof that rocket propulsion is too complex, expensive, slow and risky to allow manned (and some time robotic) exploration of space. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry for the loss of the module and I would have been happy to assist to a successful landing. My point is that if we want to do something more than shooting expensive bullets across the solar system (hoping that they fall in the right place without crashing) there is the need for new forms of propulsion, we can’t escape it.

Now, since a failed mission is basically an enormous waste of money why can’t space agencies, for once, risk such amount of resources in the research for propulsion systems alternate to rocketry? What difference it would make if money were lost because a wrong concept rather than a computer failure millions Kilometers away? Instead IF the research was a success, then the consequences would be enormous: how far could have EmDrive (or PNN) advanced if it was funded with the same amount of money used for Curiosity rover (2.5 billion $)?

Maybe postcards from Mars are more appealing to the public for fundraising campaigns.


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