Columns, Opinion

KASTRITIS: ESA’s scientific failure a reminder, learning experience

The exciting experimentation that often precedes the unearthing and codification of scientific knowledge is perhaps what makes science so endearing. It is a laborious process with mixed results. Sometimes it is executed cleanly, elegantly, successfully and can even lead to surprising, unintended discoveries. Other times it is unintentionally messy, complicated and resulting in failure. No area of experimental science is wholly immune to this familiar experience, and even impressive administrations as organized and resourceful as NASA in the United States or the European Space Agency are not without instances of unanticipated failure.

The recent destruction of the ESA’s Mars lander probe “Schiaparelli,” just one, unplanned step in the Agency’s ExoMars mission, is no such instance, however. On the contrary, it serves as a useful reminder of the complex, delicate, multivariable nature of space exploration and spacecraft experimentation. Furthermore, it serves as encouragement for analyzing and understanding the failure in order to rectify and improve the future phases of the mission.

The first signs of anomaly in the mission arose when the Schiaparelli probe, during the last minute before its intended landing on Mars, failed to emit radio communication signals back to the command station on Earth. Now, approximately two Earth days later, pictures taken by the separate NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the planned landing area for the Schiaparelli probe provide strong indicia as to its presumed fate: new markings on the planet surface suggest a debris field likely arising from an explosion of the probe as it impacted the planet surface. The ESA now believes that the Schiaparelli probe struck the surface at a speed exceeding 300 kilometers per hour, “therefore impacting at a considerable speed.” Needless to say, the Schiaparelli was destroyed, but not for nothing.

Those involved in the European Space Agency ExoMars program are optimistic about the overall success of the recent mission, and for good reason. “In my heart, of course I’m sad that we couldn’t land softly on the surface of Mars,” ESA chief Jan Woerner told the Associated Press. “But the main part of the mission is the science that will be done by the orbiter.”

Indeed, the principal aspect of the mission continues on with the Trace Gas Orbiter. This satellite component remains in the Martian atmosphere, where it will search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes.

It is critical to note the role that the Schiaparelli probe played in this mission as an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. It intended to test critical technology for future missions to Mars. The ESA reports that “a substantial amount of extremely valuable Schiaparelli engineering data were relayed back to the TGO during the descent and is being analysed by engineers day and night.” So, in this way, something surprisingly useful to the future of the ExoMars mission can come out of a perceived failure. Any step back is a reminder of the constantly changing nature and perspective of such an endeavor and the scientific process in general.

The recent development in the ExoMars mission is no embarrassment. It is valuable to note that there have only been seven successful robotic landings on Mars, and all of them by NASA. I do not think it necessary or even fruitful to delve here into the enormous complications of successfully executing such a mission, and it is to the high credit of the ESA to continue its tempo, unabated, in the ExoMars mission despite this setback.

If anything, it should at least serve as a galvanizing effort to learn from the mistake and to reconsider, reevaluate and anticipate the future phases of the mission. To the general public, it could serve as a token reminder of the laborious, technical, intricate work that these agencies undergo for the expansion of scientific knowledge. This is what goes in to the betterment of mankind.

In a news conference concerning the matter, European Space Agency chief Woerner described the mission as “a 96 percent success.” I would agree.

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