Triumph or disaster?

THAT space flight is as much show business as science was confirmed on the evening of October 19th, when members of the ExoMars team put on the bravest of faces for a broadcast from their mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, about the arrival of the project’s craft at Mars. ExoMars is a joint endeavour by Europe’s and Russia’s space agencies. If science were its only criterion, team members would have been cock-a-hoop. Their main research vehicle, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), had successfully entered almost precisely its designated orbit around Mars, and looked well placed to do its job of mapping concentrations of the minor chemical components of the Martian atmosphere, which is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. This is an important task, for one such component is methane—and that may be a sign the planet harbours life.

Instead, there were the flat, controlled voices of those trying to come to terms with disappointment, while hoping against hope that their worst fears are wrong. The reason was that the other part of the mission, a cone-shaped landing craft called Schiaparelli, had abruptly gone silent on its way…Continue reading

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