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New pictures show Mars lander crash site

The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli Mars lander, plummeting to the surface of the red planet last week after a malfunction during the final stages of its descent, hit the surface at some 180 mph, possibly exploding on impact and gouging out a shallow eight-foot-wide circular crater, officials said Thursday.

High-resolution pictures from the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter clearly show the Schiaparelli impact site, the lander’s parachute and backshell and its discarded heat shield, all within about nine tenths of a mile of each other.

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NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this image of the Schiaparelli spacecraft’s landing zone, showing an apparent impact crater where the main body of the spacecraft hit the ground, it’s white parachute, rear heat shield and forward heat shield. NASA

Telemetry from the lander during its descent shows the heat shield worked properly and was released as planned. Likewise, Schiaparelli’s large supersonic parachute deployed to slow the craft to the point where it could safely fall free, using nine small rocket motors to descend to the surface.

But something went wrong in the final stages of the descent when the lander apparently was released from its parachute at a higher-than-planned altitude, or its braking rockets shut down too soon — or both — and Schiaparelli crashed to the surface.

The new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images show a dark, circular feature that measures about 7.9 feet across and 1.5 feet deep, “about the size of a shallow crater expected from impact into dry soil of an object with the lander’s mass — about 660 pounds (300 kilograms) — and calculated velocity,” NASA said in a description of the image.

“Surrounding the dark spot are dark radial patterns expected from an impact event,” the agency said.

The European Space Agency said the asymmetric markings around the presumed impact crater are possibly the result of propellant tanks rupturing and exploding on impact.

“It is possible the hydrazine propellant tanks in the module exploded preferentially in one direction upon impact, throwing debris from the planet’s surface in the direction of the blast, but more analysis is needed to explore this idea further.”

A dark arc curving away to the northeast of the impact site is “unusual,” NASA said, and “not yet explained.”

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