MRO Schiaparelli image
A Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Schiaparelli landing site, with a closeup on the right, showing a dark spot believed to be the impact site of the European lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

WASHINGTON — Images from a NASA Mars orbiter suggest that the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli spacecraft crashed when attempting to land on the Martian surface Oct. 19.

The images from a camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, released by ESA Oct. 21, show two new features in an Oct. 20 image of the Martian surface not seen in an image of the same area taken five months earlier. One, a white spot, is thought to be Schiaparelli’s parachute.

A second, larger dark spot, 15 by 40 meters in size, may be the crash site of the spacecraft itself. “Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between two and hour kilometers, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 kilometers per hour,” ESA said in a statement.

The spacecraft apparently fell when its thrusters shut down within a few seconds of ignition. “It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full,” ESA stated.

The images came from an instrument known as the MRO Context Camera, with a resolution of six meters per pixel. NASA plans to take additional pictures of the region next week with MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, which can collect images with a resolution of 0.3 to 0.6 meters.

Controllers lost contact with Schiaparelli about 50 seconds before the scheduled landing, and efforts to restore contact with the lander failed. ESA said it’s continuing to analyze the telemetry it did receive from the lander in order to determine what happened during the landing attempt.

“The exact mode of anomaly onboard Schiaparelli is still under investigation,” ESA said in its statement, adding that engineers are studying a “substantial amount of extremely valuable Schiaparelli engineering data” relayed back to Earth from the Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft.

Despite the apparent failed landing, ESA Director General Jan Woerner praised the overall ExoMars mission, which includes the Trace Gas Orbiter than entered Mars orbit at the same time as the landing. In an Oct. 21 blog post, he calculated that ExoMars was 96 percent successful based on the orbiter’s success, which he said accounted for 80 percent of the overall mission, and the 80 percent of the expected data that Schiaparelli returned.

“All in all, a very positive result,” he wrote.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...