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ESA: ExoMars lander Schiaparelli 'possibly exploded on impact'

The European Space Agency has said that its ExoMars lander probably crashed on the surface of the Red Planet during an attempted touchdown. The lander likely hit the ground with a speed greater than 300 km/h (186 mph).

ESA scientists revealed the unfortunate probable fate of the European-Russian ExoMars Schiaparelli lander on Friday. The space probe was likely destroyed on impact after freefalling at high speed, they announced after reviewing pictures taken by NASA.

A low-resolution CTX camera on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) gathered images of the expected landing site on Thursday, a day after Schiaparelli's descent.

Based on the images, ESA scientists believe the lander likely plummeted from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometers (1.2 to 2.5 miles) and impacted the Martian surface at a speed greater than 300 km/h (186 mph).

ESA said it is "possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full."

A GIF picture of the NASA images posted on the ESA's ExoMars Orbiter Twitter page shows two new features near the surface of the planet.

The first is a small white dot in the lower right-hand corner of the zoomed-in shot. ESA officials said this bright dot "can be associated with the 12-meter (39-foot) diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli's descent."

A second dark patch can be seen in the upper left corner of the magnified photograph. ESA officials believe this dark dot arose from the Schiaparelli module's impact "following a much longer free-fall than planned, after the thrusters switched off prematurely."

The disc-shaped Schiaparelli probe was part of a larger mission to search for evidence of life on Mars. It descended to the Red Planet on Wednesday to test technology for a rover that scientists hope to send to the surface of the planet in 2020.

ESA scientists received data showing that the lander's heat shield and parachutes deployed successfully, but lost contact shortly before landing.

rs/msh   (AFP, Reuters)

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