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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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What went wrong with Europe’s Mars lander?

Schiaparelli lander
An artist’s conception shows the Schiaparelli lander at the end of its parachute. (Credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander apparently crashed after its parachute was ejected too early and its thrusters switched off too soon, according to data relayed back from its orbiting mothership.

“We have data coming back that allow us to fully understand the steps that did occur, and why the soft landing did not occur,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, said today in a news release.

However, ESA emphasized that the analysis was still continuing, and the conclusions were only preliminary.

The good news is that the saucer-shaped lander’s mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, entered its intended orbit around Mars and is in good health.

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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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Messages beamed to aliens amid debate over perils

Cebreros Station
The European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain transmitted an 866-second encoded radio message in the direction of Polaris, 434 light-years away. (Credit: ESA)

More than 3,000 messages were beamed toward the North Star today by a powerful radio telescope – and although the exercise was largely symbolic, it serves to revive a debate over whether we should be trying to contact aliens.

Today’s transmission by the European Space Agency’s Cebreros deep-space tracking station in Spain was the culmination of a yearlong effort known as “A Simple Response to an Elemental Message,” spearheaded by Irish-born artist Paul Quast.

With support from ESA and other organizations, Quast and his collaborators solicited 3,775 text-only messages from around the world in response to this question: How will our present environmental interactions shape the future?

The 14-minute digital transmission with all those answers was beamed toward Polaris, the North Star, at 8 p.m. GMT (1 p.m. PT).

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Mission to a comet ends with bittersweet bang

Rosetta cartoon
The Rosetta probe inspired a series of kid-friendly cartoons. (Credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe today descended to a mission-ending impact on the comet that it followed for more than two years.

The car-sized probe continued to transmit data as it dove toward the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 446 million miles from Earth. When the data stream flatlined, scientists and engineers at ESA’s mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, knew it was all over.

The end was greeted at 1:19 p.m. CEST (4:19 a.m. PT) with a prolonged “Ohhh,” followed by applause and hugs.

“This is it,” said Rosetta mission manager Patrick Martin. “I can announce the full success of this historic descent of Rosetta toward 67P, and I declare hereby the mission operations ended for Rosetta. … Farewell, Rosetta. You’ve done the job.”

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FAA suggests a marketplace for Moon Village

Moon Village
An artist’s conception shows a permanent lunar base that’s part of the European Space Agency’s “Moon Village” vision. (Credit: ESA)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – If the world wants to create a village on the moon, the Federal Aviation Administration is willing to start up an online trading post for lunar services.

George Nield, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, says he doesn’t even need to wait for the village to be built.

Nield offered to set up what he called LMASS – the Lunar Marketplace and Swap Shop – during one of today’s sessions at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara.

“Think of it as a corkboard,” Nield said. The potential traders could include businesses that are working on ways to move cargo from low Earth orbit to lunar orbit, or on moon landers, or on habitats, or surface transportation, or communication services, or other technologies that will eventually be needed for lunar operations.

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Long-lost lander located in a comet’s crack

Image: Philae lander
A close-up shows the 3-foot-wide Philae lander from a distance of 1.7 miles. (Credit: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA)

After almost two years’ of searching, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has shown scientists what happened to the Philae lander when itbounced onto the surface of a comet – and why it went out of contact.

The answer to the mystery comes less than a month before the $1.4 billion Rosetta mission’s end.

Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera spotted the boxy, 3-foot-wide Philae lander stuck in a dark crack on Comet 67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, more than 420 million miles from Earth.

The comet has been the object of Rosetta’s study since August 2014. Philae was pushed out from the main spacecraft and descended to the surface that November. The lander was supposed to beam up a stream of data about the comet’s composition. It did provide three days’ worth of data, but then the solar-powered probe fell silent.

Rosetta’s scientists determined that the lander had bounced on the surface, and spent months analyzing radio data and imagery from the main spacecraft in an attempt to figure out where it ended up. They assumed that Philae had fallen someplace dark where it couldn’t recharge its batteries.

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Moon or Mars: Which will next president pick?

Image: Moon Village
An artist’s conception shows a permanent lunar base that’s part of the European Space Agency’s “Moon Village” vision. (Credit: ESA)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Over the past eight years, the focus of NASA’s space vision has shifted from the moon, to a near-Earth asteroid, to the journey to Mars. The European Space Agency’s director-general, meanwhile, has been talking up the prospect of building a Moon Village. And one of the latest buzzwords for commercial space ventures is “cislunar” – that is, space operations in the vicinity of the moon.

What’s a future president to do?

Space policy ranks among the least prominent issues on the campaign agenda: GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, for example, says he loves space exploration but thinks it’s more important to fix potholes on Earth. Nevertheless, leaders of the space industry say the next president will play a key role in determining the world’s future course on the final frontier.

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British astronaut gets set to run space marathon

Image: Tim Peake
British astronaut Tim Peake, shown here at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, says he’ll run a marathon distance on the International Space Station’s T2 treadmill while thousands of others run the London Marathon on April 24. (Credit: ESA)

British astronaut Tim Peake says he’ll follow in the footsteps of NASA’s Sunita Williams by running a marathon in orbit on the International Space Station.

Peake is due to ride a Russian Soyuz craft to the station for a six-month stint on Dec. 15, which should give him plenty of zero-G training time for the London Marathon on April 24. While more than 30,000 runners make their way through the course’s 26 miles and 385 yards on Earth, Peake will run the same distance on the station’s treadmill, held down by a harness to keep him on track.

He’s running the race to raise awareness for the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity co-founded by Britain’s Prince Charles.

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