Fate of Mars lander in balance after descent to red planet
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A European space lander reached Mars on Wednesday in what scientists hope will mark a major milestone in exploration of the red planet, but whether it touched down on the surface in good health was far from certain.
Older European and US spacecraft already in orbit relayed data of the lander's six-minute descent. Then transmission stopped, leaving questions over what state the disc-shaped 577-kg (1,272 lb) Schiaparelli probe was in.
"It is clear that these are not good signs," said Paolo Ferri, the European Space Agency's (ESA) head of mission operations.
However, the primary part of the mission, bringing the lander's mothership into orbit around Mars to search for signs of life, was a success, the agency said.
"To fly to Mars is a very big challenge. To fly and be in safe orbit is a very big challenge," ESA Director General Jan Woerner said at ESA's Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
Landing a spacecraft on Mars is notoriously difficult and several past missions have failed, including the European Space Agency's previous attempt in 2003 with the rover Beagle 2. It made it to Mars but its solar panels didn't unfold properly, preventing it from communicating.
While Schiaparelli has some scientific instruments on board, its main purpose is to rehearse the landing and test technology for a European rover mission to Mars in 2020. NASA has successfully placed several robotic vehicles on the planet, including the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.
Schiaparelli left for Mars in March aboard a Russian rocket together with its mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter.
The orbiter, which also has NASA-made instruments on board, will analyze methane and other gases in the atmosphere.
Methane is created by biological or geological activity and breaks down within a few hundred years once it reaches the atmosphere, suggesting there is biological or geological activity on Mars now or in the recent past.
The prospect of finding even microscopic organisms on Mars has excited scientists for some time, but so far none has been discovered.
The ExoMars program, which comprises the current and 2020 mission, is ESA's first interplanetary mission jointly undertaken with the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)