Images taken by a NASA Mars orbiter indicate that a missing European space probe was destroyed on impact after plummeting to the surface of the Red Planet from a height of 2 to 4 km, the European Space Agency said on Friday.
The disc-shaped, 577 kg Schiaparelli probe, part of the Russian-European ExoMars program to search for evidence of life on Mars, descended on Wednesday to test technologies for a rover that scientists hope to send to the surface of the planet in 2020.
"Schiaparelli reached the ground with a velocity that was much higher than it should have been, several hundred kilometres per hour, and was then unfortunately destroyed by the impact," ExoMars Flight Director Michel Denis told Reuters TV.
It was only the second European attempt to land a craft on Mars, after a failed mission by the British landing craft Beagle 2 in 2003.
The US space agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the planet for about 10 years, took low-resolution pictures that show a bright spot that ESA believes is the 12-metre parachute that Schiaparelli used to slow down along with a fuzzy dark patch which scientists interpret as having been created by the impact of the lander following a free fall.
— Ron Baalke (@RonBaalke) October 21, 2016
The space agency said that NASA's orbiter would take pictures with its highest-resolution camera next week, which may provide further clues
ESA Director General Jan Woerner said earlier that the ExoMars mission had been "96 percent" successful so far, despite problems with the lander, as the orbiter was functioning well and the experience with Schiaparelli would still provide valuable lessons for future attempts to land on Mars.
— SPACE.com (@SPACEdotcom) October 22, 2016
Landing on Mars, Earth's neighbour and at its closest some 56 million km away, is a notoriously difficult task that has thwarted most Russian efforts and given NASA trouble as well.
That has not diminished its allure, with US President Barack Obama recently highlighting his pledge to send people to the surface by the 2030s.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX is developing a massive rocket and capsule to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars with the ultimate goal of colonising the planet.