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NASA gets better look at Mars lander crash site

European Space Agency's Schiaparelli didn't make a soft landing on the Red Planet. Now, a Mars orbiter has the first color images of the wreckage.

The European Space Agency had hoped to put its Schiaparelli lander on Mars last month to gather data on the planet's huge dust storms and test technologies for future missions. The landing didn't go as planned.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has just returned the most detailed images yet of the robot's final resting place.

The lander was part of Europe's ExoMars mission, which included the successful deployment of the Trace Gas Orbiter around the planet. Schiaparelli hitched a ride to the Red Planet with TGO and was supposed to make its way to the surface via a combination of heat shields, parachute and hydrazine thrusters. Instead, it appears a software glitch may have caused the lander to release its parachute early and hit the ground at a speed of 180 miles per hour as a result.

After tracking down Schiaparelli's crash site and sending back some black and white images, MRO returned color photos taken of the carnage on November 1 that better illustrate just how brutal the impact must have been.

New images of the crash site. Bright spots are believed to be parts of the lander while dark areas and streaks could be from the crater and 'ejecta' it formed.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona


The color shot above was actually constructed from high-resolution images of the site with three different filters. This allows new details about the site to emerge.

"For example, a number of the bright white spots around the dark region interpreted as the impact site are confirmed as real objects - they are not likely to be imaging 'noise' - and therefore are most likely fragments of Schiaparelli," the ESA wrote in a blog post Thursday.

In other words, those bright spots really are lander guts.

New color images also show the resting place of the heat shield and parachute nearby. The parachute has apparently shifted in the wind since the original black and white shots were taken.

An independent inquiry board is looking into the cause of the lander's untimely demise and another imaging pass is set to happen in a few weeks. We'll report back when we know more about the hottest interplanetary crash investigation in the solar system.

Schiaparelli's parachute seen shifted by winds in two images.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona