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After signal loss, scientists wonder what happened to Europe's Mars lander

Miriam Kramer
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Where are you, Schiaparelli?

Mission managers are still anxiously waiting to find out what happened to the Schiaparelli lander, part of the joint ExoMars alien life-hunting mission from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia.

Schiaparelli attempted to make its landing on Mars Wednesday after launching from Earth with the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the other half of the 2016 ExoMars mission, in March. 

SEE ALSO: Was Europe's Mars landing successful?

But the ESA still hasn't gotten confirmation of a successful landing, and it's not looking great. 

Mission control was able to track Schiaparelli's descent through the Martian atmosphere on Wednesday, but it unexpectedly lost contact with the lander just before its onboard thrusters were supposed to fire for the landing.

"It’s clear that these are not good signs," ESA's head of mission operations Paolo Ferri, said during a webcast.

Landing on Mars isn't exactly easy. 

Space agencies around the world have been aiming for the red planet with missions dating back decades, but only NASA has managed to successfully land and operate spacecraft on the Martian surface. 

In total, the American agency has operated seven successful missions on the planet, with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers continuing their science missions today.

The U.K. attempted to send its Beagle 2 lander to the red planet with the ESA's Mars Express orbiter in 2003, however, the craft lost contact with Earth during its attempt. The fate of the Beagle 2 was unknown until 11 years later, when it was found by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Hope on the horizon

However, it is clear that Wednesday wasn't a total bust for the mission. 

The TGO made it into orbit around Mars, and it is tasked with the main part of this year's ExoMars science mission. The mission is aimed at seeking out signatures of possible life on the red planet by sniffing gasses in the planet's atmosphere.

Plus, the TGO should help shed light on Schiaparelli's fate by Thursday when mission managers will announce their analysis of data beamed down to Earth by the TGO, which should have recorded Schiaparelli's descent to Mars.

The ESA is enlisting help from other orbiters above the red planet, including Mars Express, as well as NASA's MAVEN and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter probes. These spacecraft will be listening out for pings from Schiaparelli, according to the ESA.

If Schiaparelli did fail, mission controllers will still be able to learn something valuable about how to land spacecraft on Mars in the future.

Regardless of what happened to Schiaparelli, the ESA and Russia are planning on more Mars missions.

The whole point in sending the Schiaparelli lander to Mars was to gather important information about how to land another part of the ExoMars mission on the red planet in the future.

The ESA and Russia are planning to send a rover and landing platform to Mars by around 2020 to hunt for signs of life on the red planet, continuing the ExoMars mission.