Mars spacecraft in orbit but no clear signal from lander

A joint European and Russian mission to look for signs of life on Mars has successfully placed a spacecraft into the planet's orbit, the European Space Agency said Wednesday, although the signal from a landing probe was lost during its descent.

"We have a mission around Mars," Michel Denis, flight director for the ExoMars mission, said on the ESA Twitter feed.

Cheers erupted two hours earlier in the European Space Agency's mission control room as the ExoMars mission's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) emerged from behind Mars to ping a "loud and clear" signal at our home planet.

The insertion into orbit confirmed that "we have a good spacecraft in the right place," Denis said.

In a fraught dual manoeuvre, the TGO was entering orbit while the Schiaparelli test probe was making its way at breakneck speed to the Martian floor.

The TGO data confirms that a crucial part of the ExoMars mission, in cooperation with Russia's Roscosmos, has been successful.

The news was less positive for the Schiaparelli lander. ESA said that there were "not good signs" from the probe.

Scientists were "trying to confirm contact with the Entry, Descent & Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), Schiaparelli, which entered the Martian atmosphere some 107 minutes after TGO started its own orbit insertion manoeuvre," ESA said on its website.

"The signal was lost some time prior to landing," the statement said.

"Experts will work through the night to assess the situation" with the Schiaparelli probe, ESA said on Twitter.

An earlier tweet by ESA Operations said the recording from Schiaparelli was "inconclusive."

A press briefing was expected on Thursday morning.

Schiaparelli's automated landing manoeuvre started 121 kilometres above the surface, braking from a speed of 21,000 kilometres an hour. Mission control at Darmstadt in Germany was unable to intervene given the time delay of some 10 minutes.

If all goes well, the batteries will provide power for a few days for data to be sent back to Earth from the Meridiani Planum in the Martian highlands.

Schiaparelli has a sort of webcam on its underside that will shoot 15 black-and-white photographs of the Martian surface at intervals of 1.5 seconds, starting at 3 kilometres up.

The probe left Earth from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in March together with the TGO, from which it separated on Sunday.

The TGO is set to begin its analysis of the Martian atmosphere at the end of 2017 and will serve as a communications relay for the rover which ExoMars plans to send to Earth's neighbour in 2020.

Schiaparelli's main aim is to gather experience for that second phase of the mission.

The rover is designed with the ability to drill two metres down into the surface, going considerably deeper than US missions to look for molecules of a biological nature.

Meanwhile, the TGO will gather data on the Martian atmosphere, looking for methane in particular as a sign of biological activity. Using a neutron detector it will also look for ice under the surface in a mission lasting at least until 2022.

By contrast, Schiaparelli will cease functioning when its batteries run out after just a few days.

ESA is under pressure to deliver results after its previous project to land a spacecraft on Mars failed when the British-built Beagle 2 was declared lost on Christmas Day 2003, only to be found 11 years later by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Last update: Wed, 19/10/2016 - 23:10

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