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Fears Mars lander crashed after parachute 'jettisoned too early'

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Schiaparelli EDM lander.

Schiaparelli EDM lander.

Schiaparelli EDM lander.

IT LOOKS increasingly likely that Mars lander Schiaparelli lies crashed and broken on the Red Planet as politics begins to overtake science in the higher reaches of the European Space Agency (Esa).

After admitting that the final phase of the descent did not "match expectations", Esa has issued no further news updates on the probe's fate.

But evidence pieced together from data transmitted by the craft suggests a high-speed impact it would not have survived.

What happened to Schiaparelli is a highly sensitive issue, with a crucial Esa ministerial council meeting due to be held in Lucerne in December.

Member states will be asked to pledge their continued funding for the ambitious second phase of the ExoMars mission that will launch a life-seeking rover to Mars in 2020.

Together, the two stages of the mission are estimated to cost €1.56bn.

Open University space scientist Dr Manish Patel, a leading member of the ExoMars research team, said: "It comes down to what we can learn from this, if we can get enough information about why it went wrong. Ultimately, it depends on the politicians in December and if they have sufficient faith in what we've learned."

The ExoMars rover, designed to drill two metres into the Martian surface and test soil samples for signs of past or present life, is being developed by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

Schiaparelli's main function was to carry out a test run of the rover's Russian-designed automated landing system.

Everything initially went according to plan after the probe entered the planet's atmosphere at 21,000kmh on Wednesday. But something went badly wrong as the lander was due to jettison its parachute and fire up its retro rockets some 4,000ft above the surface.

Esa said early indications were that the parachute was ditched too soon. More worrying still, the three clusters of nine retro rockets fired for only two or three seconds instead of the expected 29. Esa scientists are still sifting through data before the signal was cut off, just before it was due to touch down.

Accelerometer readings from Schiaparelli may show scientists if there was a hard impact before the signal was lost. If that has already been discovered, Esa is keeping the information to itself.

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