On Wednesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced it has safely put a new satellite in Mars’ orbit, but it lost contact with its Schiaparelli probe after a bumpy landfall. The satellite known as the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter’s mission goal is to analyze the planet’s atmosphere. Schiaparelli, on the other hand, was supposed to study the planet’s dust storms.
The agency successfully parked the orbiter above the Red Planet on Oct. 19. But all contact with the lander was lost one minute prior to the landing. The agency is still waiting for radio signals to confirm the landfall.
ESA said Schiaparelli may follow in Beagle 2’s footsteps, another lander Europeans which tried to land on Mars. Beagle failed to reach the Red Planet’s surface in 2003. So far, Europe hasn’t landed anything on Mars yet.
The agency declined to deem the probe lost. It said it needs more data from other Mars satellites before it can issue an official statement. ESA officials hope they’ll receive more info Thursday morning.
If Schiaparelli is no longer operable, it’s a hard blow to ESA. The agency teamed up with Russian space agencies to build it as it is extremely important for a future Mars mission. ESA’s Schiaparelli could have helped Europeans test landing technologies needed for a 2021 rover mission to Mars.
That was the primary goal. The secondary one was to study Martian storms that could impede future missions. NASA’s Michael Smith explained that dust particles on the planet are so tiny they can virtually get into everything.
For instance, particles can cover solar panels and cut off a robotic probe from its main power source. In addition, the alien whirlwinds can trigger electric fields which could interfere with the probe’s communications. Also, they could simply fry any electronic hardware.
Furthermore, because seasons on the Red Plant are not like those on our home planet, storms there are different as well. When Mars gets too close to the Sun and receives 40 percent more sunlight, the tiny storms can morph into superstorms. This happens in the southern hemisphere.
Scientists explained that the extra sunlight warms the air closest to the surface. Thus, the air rises spurring more dust-filled winds. But don’t imagine they’ll be like the cyclone which stranded Matt Damon on the Red Planet in the movie The Martian.
In reality, wind speeds can reach tens of miles per hour, which can only reduce visibility and impair mechanical gears. For instance, the fine dust particles can clog a rover’s joints if it is not sealed up tightly.
What’s more, dust can cover lenses and mirrors. Eight years ago, a dust storm partially destroyed the thermal infrared spectrometers on two U.S. rovers. Yet, the greatest damage a dust storm can inflict is when the dust covers solar panels since rovers need solar panels to stay alive.
Scientists are also concerned about larger dust storms which start in the southern hemisphere in summertime. There were instances when several dust storms merged into a larger haze of dust which moved into the northern hemisphere and engulfed the entire planet. Fortunately, these global events are quite rare, with only nine occurring since 1924.
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