Orbiter reaches Mars, but lander is lost

Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander
An artist’s conception show the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter releasing the Schiaparelli lander for its descent to Mars. (Credit: D. Ducros / ESA)

For the first time in 13 years, the European Space Agency has put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars – and has sent a piggyback lander to an unknown fate on the Red Planet’s surface.

Flight controllers at ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, cheered the news that the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was back in contact after rounding Mars today. The last time an ESA orbiter arrived at the Red Planet was back in 2003, with Mars Express.

“We have two satellites around Mars,” flight director Michel Denis declared.

Denis and the rest of his team were still waiting to hear from the Schiaparelli lander, which was launched along with the orbiter in March, and was released on Oct. 16 for its descent.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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