In October 2016, the ExoMars Schiaparelli lander was making headlines thanks to its daring mission to Mars. The spacecraft was supposed to land successfully on Mars and start studying the planet. Instead, it disappeared from radars and was later revealed to have crashed into the planet’s surface. Now, an ESA inquiry board links its faith to a computer glitch.
The Cause of the Computer Glitch
ESA or the European Space Agency lost all contact with its Mars lander as this was barreling through the Martian atmosphere. Its faith was cleared up later as the NASA Reconnaissance Orbiter detected and photographed Schiaparelli’s landing site.
Mission specialists offered a problem with the parachute opening as the most likely cause. So they set out to determine the exact reason behind this failed mission. Now, according to recently released results, the crash was caused by a computer glitch at the IMU level.
IMU or the Inertia Measurement Unit was developed to measure and report the lander’s inertial velocity. But in this case, it apparently returned a set of “bad” data. According to the report, Schiaparelli’s computer believed to be if not on, at least very close to the planet’s surface.
Instead, it seemingly was some 3.7 kilometers above Mars. This computer glitch in the IMU data meant that the computer did not fire its braking thrusters in time. In turn, this sent it hurtling towards the surface of the Red Planet at about 150 m/s.
So the inquiry board looked to determine the reason behind the glitch. As an internal malfunction was rapidly ruled out, so was a human error, which was not necessarily to blame. Instead, the report considers that this problem was most probably caused by the severe conditions faced throughout the descent.
“ […] a natural phenomenon caused by a combination of various parameters, which were not properly predicted/expected before flight.”
Reportedly, scientists could not predict these incredibly severe supersonic conditions. Nor could the IMU cope with their effects.
The ESA report ends with a series of recommendations. Through them, scientists are hoping to prevent similar such problems when developing and eventually launching the ExoMars 2020 lander.
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