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Science & Environment

Scientists Await Word From Probe As It Descends Toward Mars

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The European and Russian Space Agencies tried to land a probe on Mars today, but things did not go as planned. It lost contact just minutes before touchdown. European Space Agency officials are working through the night to understand what happened. Here is ESA Director General Johann Woerner.

JOHANN WOERNER: Cross your fingers still, and maybe we have some better results, even some positive results during the night.

MCEVERS: NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell is with us now to talk about the mission. Thanks for being with us.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So what happened?

BICHELL: Well, we know that things were going pretty well up to just a few minutes from when it was supposed to hit the surface. The probe, which is called Schiaparelli after an Italian astronomer - it entered the Martian atmosphere, and then its parachute came out to slow it down. It separated from the parachute, and then mission control in Germany just lost the signal.

So we think that after that, it's slowed down more and then fell to the ground, doing this, like, version of a belly flop, landing on this big, crushable structure. But right now they're not sure what exactly happened. It's not unexpected for things to go a little wrong. It's just really hard to land on Mars.

MCEVERS: Why?

BICHELL: Well, one thing is there's a really thin atmosphere, so it's hard to slow down. And you have to slow down a lot in order to not, like, completely obliterate all this expensive, fancy equipment on the surface. Just to give you a sense of, like, how much you have to slow down, this one, this probe, was going at about 13,000 miles an hour, and it had to get to zero miles an hour in about six minutes.

MCEVERS: I mean this was supposed to be this really big, historical moment for Europe and Russia, right?

BICHELL: Right. There have only been seven successful landings on Mars, and those were all done by the U.S. There were a few close calls. So way back in 1971, the Soviet Union did manage to land a probe on Mars, but then it died after 20 seconds. And then later, Europe got the Beagle 2 into the planet's atmosphere but lost its signal right away, and it was never heard from again.

One thing to know is that the U.S. was originally supposed to be involved in this mission. NASA was going to provide the landing technology that worked so well in the past, but then it dropped out because of budget issues. So Russia stepped in in its place.

That was kind of a bummer for this mission because NASA has the most experience with landing on Mars. So instead of being able to use that sort of tried and true technique, the engineers here had to come up with their own for this project.

MCEVERS: I mean because they didn't land, does that mean this mission was a failure?

BICHELL: No, not at all. The lander made it pretty far, well into the atmosphere. And then actually in some ways, the lander itself was the less important piece of this mission. It involved two spacecrafts. The other one is an orbiter. And that one successfully started circling Mars today, and it'll be collecting a lot of important information to answer some pretty big questions like if there's life on the planet.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell. Thank you very much.

MCEVERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.