Mars orbiter spots blackened remains of lander

Mars orbiter image
This image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the landing zone for the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe on Mars. Analysts say the bright spot shows where the lander’s parachute fell, and the black spot shows where the lander hit. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has caught sight of the blackened spot where a European lander apparently hit the Martian surface, providing the first visual evidence that the Schiaparelli probe did indeed bite the dust.

Before-and-after pictures from the orbiter’s low-resolution Context Camera also showed the appearance of a brand-new bright spot in the expected landing zone in Mars’ Meridiani Planum region. That bright spot is thought to be Schiaparelli’s 40-foot-wide parachute, which was apparently ejected earlier than intended.

The “before” image was taken in May, and the “after” image was taken on Oct. 20, a day after the lander’s descent.

The pictures will help guide follow-up observations to be made next week using MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE. The European Space Agency’s ExoMars team says even the low-resolution imagery is consistent with a high-speed impact that would have destroyed the lander.

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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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