Nothing can break your heart like a Mars ship that goes bad. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars, fly tens of millions of miles, get your lander to within a few thousand feet of the surface of the planet and then…nothing. A crash or a blackout or some kind of malfunction and everything is lost.
That was the sudden sorrow experienced by the thousands of engineers, designers and builders of the joint European-Russian ExoMars probe, when the orbital portion of the two-part spacecraft successfully arrived at Mars and began its two-year mission to sample the planet’s atmosphere, but controllers lost contact with the Schiaparelli lander—named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli—on the way down.
“Win or lose, space brings us together.”
It’s always possible the probe got safely to its intended landing site in Mars’s Meridiani Planum and that the problem is merely a glitchy communications system. That’s certainly the longshot that mission controllers will be investigating before officially declaring the spacecraft dead, but no one is terribly optimistic.
If it’s any consolation to the ExoMars team, it’s that space is hard and Mars has proven itself hardest of all. Since 1960, six different space agencies—from the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan, India and China—have sent a combined 44 probes to Mars and 25 of them have failed in whole or in part. It’s a mark of the cussedly stubborn human spirit that we keep trying. And it’s a mark too of our refreshingly collaborative nature that more and more, on many matters cosmic, we’re working together.