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Fate of European Space Probe Uncertain

  • Lisa Bryant

A video journalist points his camera at a screen with a rendering during an event organized by Italy's Space Agency, on the occasion of the insertion of the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars, and the landing of the Schiaparelli module on the surface of the planet, in Rome, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

A video journalist points his camera at a screen with a rendering during an event organized by Italy's Space Agency, on the occasion of the insertion of the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars, and the landing of the Schiaparelli module on the surface of the planet, in Rome, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

The European Space Agency is uncertain whether its test probe has successfully landed on Mars, as part of a landmark mission aimed to explore signs of life on the Red Planet.

The first part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission has been a success — scientists began cheering Wednesday as their orbiter began circling the Red Planet.

But at a news conference Thursday at ESA’s Space Operations Center in Darmstadt Germany, solar planetary mission director Andreas Accomazzo said it was unclear whether the Schiaparelli probe had crashed or landed successfully on Mars.

“There were some conditions under which the lander should have landed, and this we judge as soft," said Accomazzo. "Unfortunately we are not in a position yet - but will be - to determine the dynamic position the lander has touched the ground and then we will know whether it could survive structurally - or not.”

So far, ESA scientists have been unable to detect signals from the probe since it entered the Martian atmosphere.

But they say the most important goals of the mission are intact. They gathered important information on how to land a probe for the second part of the mission - landing a rover on Mars in 2020 that will explore whether life exists below ground.

ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner said the agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter is ready for work - studying trace gases like methane around the planet.

“TGO is for us a cornerstone of the EXO-Mars 2016 as well as 2020 missions. So the readiness is fully confirmed and we are in full control of the spacecraft,” Woerner said.

ESA failed in its last attempt to land a rover on Mars, more than a decade ago. Two rovers sent by the the US NASA space agency are currently exploring the planet’s dunes and craters.

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