Series of errors, miscommunication between developers and unforeseen circumstances resulted in the parachute being released too early.

Yes, that’s right the main reason Europe’s Schiaparelli Mars lander failed to touch down safely on Mars last year was due to software. Conflicting data as the craft descended through the Mars atmosphere confused the craft’s onboard computer.

But that wasn’t the only reason, according to the newly completed crash investigation carried out by the European Space Agency. The final report by investigators outlined several compounding failings during the development process of the Schiaparelli lander that led to its eventual demise, and has made several recommendations ahead of a new planned rover mission to Mars set for launch in 2020.

The impact crater on Mars…(Photo by NASA)

Worked as designed

Schiaparelli’s parachute had worked as designed, the report says, but the atmospheric forces that buffetted the rover at supersonic speed as it descended through the martian atmosphere had not been fully accounted for, the report said. As a result, the descent thrusters on the lander turned off too early, and the parachute was relased seconds too early, and the test module was destroyed as it slammed into the ground in Mars’ Meridiani Plain at a velocity of about 150 metres a second.

So close…

The martian lander was literally only a few seconds away from successfuly landing when its onboard systems failed to cope with the unexpected rotation of the module as it descended.

The report sounded a somewhat optimistic tone however, by stating that the craft could still have landed safely if the onboard software had been designed to better integrate all the information from its sensory inputs, and other checks and balances had been in place.

How it was supposed to happen…

“The software behaved the way it was supposed to,” David Parker, ESA head of robotic exploration said in an interview. But “the software could have been more robust had it been more cleverly designed.”

Miscommunication between contractors Thales Alenia Space and Honeywell had also contributed to the problem, Parker said, adding that the ESA still took full responsibility.

Why Schiaparelli?

The module was named after a famous 18th century Italian astronomer who mapped the Red Planet, called Schiaparelli. Ta-Dah! Now, whatever else anyone else says about you, remember you are 100% totally awesome and have as much right to be here as anyone else. Do your best to have a good day. I’m just saying. Ok, I’m out of here.

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