[ November 25, 2016 ] ESA says doomed Mars lander succumbed to bad altitude reading Mission Reports – Spaceflight Now

 In Science
Artist's concept of the Schiaparelli lander inside its scorched heat shield. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s concept of the Schiaparelli lander inside its scorched heat shield. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

One second of faulty data led to the destruction of a European spacecraft on final descent to Mars last month, officials said Wednesday.

An unexplained error in the Schiaparelli lander’s Inertial Measurement Unit, or IMU, fed incorrect data into the craft’s navigation computer, causing the probe to think it was already on the surface when it was actually still several miles above the planet, the European Space Agency said.

The IMU measured the rotation rate of the saucer-shaped lander during its descent, but engineers said the system became saturated — indicating maximum measurement — soon after Schiaparelli deployed its supersonic parachute and released the lower half of its heat shield as intended.

The erroneous saturation measurement lasted about one second, ESA said in a statement, and the flawed data caused Schiaparelli’s guidance system to believe the spacecraft was below ground level. Sensing the probe was already landed, the computer prematurely cut Schiaparelli’s parachute and backshell free, and the lander briefly ignited its braking rockets for a few seconds before initiating a post-landing command sequence as if the craft had already touched down on Mars.

Schiaparelli was still about 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) above Mars when it began its free fall, ESA said, and the lander’s nine thrusters were supposed to fire for around 30 seconds.

Engineers analyzing telemetry recorded during the Oct. 19 descent have reproduced the events in computer simulations, ESA said.

Schiaparelli was aiming for ESA’s first successful landing on Mars. The demonstrator was expected to pave the way for a Mars lander and rover set for launch in July 2020, and officials said lessons learned from last month’s attempt will still make the follow-up mission possible.

The joint European-Russian ExoMars program includes two missions.

The first launch dispatched the European-built Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander — both manufactured by an industrial team led by Thales Alenia Space — to the red planet in March, for an arrival last month, and the second launch in 2020 will include a descent stage and fixed landing platform primarily provided by Russia, and a European-made rover to search for signs of life.

David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, cautioned the result of the Schiaparelli investigation is “still a very preliminary conclusion.” ESA has set up an independent inquiry board to study the failed landing, with a final report due in early 2017, he said.

“But we will have learned much from Schiaparelli that will directly contribute to the second ExoMars mission being developed with our international partners for launch in 2020,” Parker said in a statement.

The HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took these pictures of the Schiaparelli crash site Nov. 1. The top image shows the crater left where the lander impacted, and the bottom images show (left to right) the craft's parachute and rear heat shield together and the probe's forward heat shield jettisoned during descent. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took these pictures of the Schiaparelli crash site Nov. 1. The top image shows the crater left where the lander impacted, and the bottom images show (left to right) the craft’s parachute and rear heat shield together and the probe’s forward heat shield jettisoned during descent. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

ESA officials touted Schiaparelli’s performance up until the fatal IMU error. A downward-facing Doppler radar altimeter functioned as expected and supplied accurate altitude information to the lander’s computer, the agency said.

European engineers will provide a near-copy of the Doppler radar design for the ExoMars 2020 descent module, which will be assembled in Russia but will carry some ESA-provided components in its guidance system.

Officials estimate Schiaparelli hit the ground at nearly 200 mph (300 kilometers per hour), leaving a crater identified in images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The lander may have exploded at impact because its fuel tanks were still mostly full.

Schiaparelli was heading for a landing in Meridiani Planum, a broad plain near the Martian equator. The battery-powered probe was designed to last at least four days on the surface, and perhaps more than a week, returning weather observations.

But the lander’s primary purpose was as an engineering testbed, and ESA officials believe they can harvest enough lessons from Schiaparelli to keep the 2020 mission on track.

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