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Fate of "Life on Mars" lander in balance after descent to planet

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 00:57

A European space lander reached Mars Wednesday in what scientists hope will mark a major milestone in exploration of the Red Planet, but whether it touched down in good condition is far from certain. Rough Cut (no reporter narration).

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ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION). STORY: A European space lander reached Mars on Wednesday in what scientists hope will mark a major milestone in exploration of the red planet, but whether it touched down on the surface in good health was far from certain. Older European and U.S. spacecraft already in orbit relayed data of the lander's six-minute descent. Then transmission stopped, leaving questions over what state the disc-shaped 577-kg (1,272 lb) Schiaparelli probe was in. "It's clear that these are not good signs but we will need more information. And that's what's going to happen tonight," the European Space Agency's (ESA) head of mission operations Paolo Ferri said. He added that more information about Schiaparelli should be available on Thursday (October 20), when scientists have had a chance to analyze data from the orbiting craft. The primary goal of ExoMars, the European-Russian program that launched Schiaparelli, is to find out whether life has ever existed on Mars. The spacecraft on which the lander traveled, Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), carries an atmospheric probe to study trace gases such as methane around the planet. Schiaparelli, which is testing technologies for a rover due to follow in 2020, represents only the second European attempt to land a craft on the red planet. Britain's Beagle 2 was ejected from the Mars Express spacecraft in 2003 but never made contact after failing to deploy its solar panels on landing. Landing on Mars, currently some 35 million miles (56 million km) away from its nearest planetary neighbor Earth, is a notoriously difficult task that has thwarted most efforts by Russia and given U.S. space agency NASA trouble as well. The planet's hostile environment has not detracted from its allure, with U.S. President Barack Obama recently highlighting his pledge to send people to the surface by the 2030s. 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 colonizing the planet, and the U.S. entrepreneur has said he would like to launch the first crew as early as 2024. The second part of the ExoMars mission, delayed to 2020 from 2018, will deliver a European rover to Mars. It will be the first with the ability to both move across the planet's surface and drill into the ground to collect and analyze samples.

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Fate of "Life on Mars" lander in balance after descent to planet

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 00:57