Europe’s Schiaparelli Mars rover crashed into the Red Planet last month due to a computer glitch, researchers at the European Space Agency (ESA) announced Thursday.
The cause of the crash, which led to the Schiaparelli lander becoming a huge smoking crater, occurred when the computer measuring the probe’s rotation malfunctioned, knocking subsequent calculations off track.
This problem caused the probe’s parachute, protective heat shield and braking thrusters to all deploy early, crashing the lander into Mars at 335 miles per hour. The resulting crash apparently created a 50-by-130-foot crater about 3.4 miles west of its intended landing site. The resulting crater is visible from space.
“The erroneous information generated an estimated altitude that was negative—that is, below ground level,” the ESA said in a statement. “This in turn successively triggered a premature release of the parachute and the backshell (heat shield), a brief firing of the braking thrusters and finally activation of the on-ground systems as if Schiaparelli had already landed. In reality, the vehicle was still at an altitude of around 3.7 km.”
The $251-million dollar lander was a test for future ESA rover sent to Mars to seek out evidence of life. This was Europe’s second failed attempt to land a probe on The Red Planet, after the British-built Beagle 2 robot vanished without a trace in 2003.
This is not the first time a small computer glitch destroyed a Mars probe. ESA’s error was similar to the $640 million NASA Mars Climate Orbiter crash in 1999 due to the failure to convert from U.S. Customary to Metric.
“You learn as much from things going wrong as you do from things going well in an experiment,” David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration, told reporters after the glitch was discovered.”So we have to learn from that and move on to 2020.”
NASA is currently operating two rovers on Mars, dubbed Opportunity and Curiosity. America’s space agency successfully landed seven different probes on Mars and only crashed two. The Soviet space program failed three times consecutively to land probes on Mars. No country besides the U.S. has successfully operated a probe on Mars for longer than 14.5 seconds.
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