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Another robot dies on Mars, this time way too soon

The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander couldn't phone home from the red planet, but the rest of the ExoMars mission was successful this week.

This part of the descent may not have gone so well.
ESA ATG-medialab M.Thiebaut, ESA-ATG medialab

It seems that another European spacecraft may have suffered from a rough landing in space with confirmation from ESA Thursday that a soft landing on Mars by its Schiaparelli lander "did not occur."

Schiaparelli is the nickname for the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module of ESA's ExoMars project. Schiaparelli successfully detached from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) earlier in the week and was set to make a soft landing on Mars Wednesday with the help of a heat shield, parachute and thrusters.

After TGO was successfully inserted into orbit around Mars, it was anticipated that a successful Schiaparelli landing would follow, but signals from the lander mysteriously cut out moments before landing. According to ESA, early indications are that the problem may have to do with Schiaparelli ditching its parachute a little prematurely.

"The data have been partially analysed and confirm that the entry and descent stages occurred as expected, with events diverging from what was expected after the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute. This ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete," ESA said in a release.

Schiaparelli should have thrown off its back heat shield and parachute before firing its thrusters, which would allow it to glide down towards the surface until it was about six feet above it. At this point it would have turned off the thrusters and dropped those last few feet. ESA confirmed that the thrusters fired, but apparently switched off sooner than they should have, and at an undetermined altitude.

Europe has had trouble with landings in the past. In 2003, the UK's Beagle 2 lander suffered a similar fate as part of the ESA's Mars Express mission. Then a few years ago, ESA's Philae lander came to rest in a shaded section of a comet where it couldn't get enough solar power to operate.

That's not to throw shade at European space programs, as American efforts have seen our fair share of failures, ranging from the most recent SpaceX explosion in Florida to the far more tragic loss of space shuttles Columbia and Challenger.

Even if it becomes part of the growing robot graveyard on Mars, Schiaparelli's brave flight was not in vain.

"Schiaparelli's primary role was to test European landing technologies," said Jan Worner, ESA's director general. "Recording the data during the descent was part of that, and it is important we can learn what happened, in order to prepare for the future."