Scientists stunned to discover what caused disaster on Mars

Scientists stunned to discover what caused disaster on Mars

The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli spacecraft smashed into the Red Planet, and scientists think they've found out why.

The European Space Agency’s trip to the Red Planet ended in disaster last week when the Schiaparelli spacecraft slammed into the surface, destroying it. Scientists think they have discovered why this happened, and they’re blaming it on a computer glitch, which might be good news for the program.

Scientists think some kind of software bug caused the vehicle to think it was closer to the ground that it was during the descent, which threw the entire landing sequence into chaos and caused it to start executing measures to slow down way too early, according to a statement in the journal Nature. That’s not the confirmed cause, but it’s a leading candidate for scientists trying to figure out what went wrong on Mars.

If Schiaparelli really did go down because of a glitch, that’s good news for the future effort to send a rover to Mars in 2020, because it will be easier to fix than if it’s some kind of hardware issue.

Schiaparelli performed other jobs well, entering the atmosphere on schedule and deploying its parachute at the right time, but it ejected its heat shield and parachute a half minute too early, and the thrusters ignited for just three seconds instead of 30.

“The image released today has a resolution of 6 metres per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year,” the ESA said in a statement on the discovery of the spacecraft on the surface. “One of the features is bright and can be associated with the 12-m diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli’s descent, after the initial heat shield entry. The parachute and the associated back shield were released from Schiaparelli prior to the final phase, during which its nine thrusters should have slowed it to a standstill just above the surface. The other new feature is a fuzzy dark patch roughly 15 x 40 metres in size and about 1 km north of the parachute. This is interpreted as arising from the impact of the Schiaparelli module itself following a much longer free fall than planned, after the thrusters were switched off prematurely.”

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