Today, the European Space Agency (ESA) put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars. Piggybacked onto the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was the ExoMars 2016 lander which detached for its journey to the surface. The lander, named Schiaparelli, entered the sparse atmosphere at 10:42 EDT and sent a signal back to Earth. That was the last ESA heard from the spacecraft.

If ESA cannot reestablish contact, Schiaparelli will enter the long list of Martian missions that have met with unknown fates. Of the 56 missions that involved Mars (including this one), 30 have been full or partial failures. At one point, so many of the missions failed that conspiracy theories surfaced suggesting that aliens on Mars were actively interfering with them to stay hidden! Of the first 39 missions, fully 2/3rds failed. That one of them, the Mars Climate Orbiter, slammed into the planet due to a mathematical error converting between metric and standard units did nothing to quell the notion of secretive aliens.

Breaking Down the Mission Failures

Twenty-six of the first 39 missions failed – that’s pretty bad. On the bright side, only four of the last 18 didn’t make it. That’s actually a decent percentage, considering the complexities of interplanetary travel.

From a national perspective, twenty-five of all the missions to Mars were from the United States/NASA and five of those were failures, for a 75% success rate. Two missions were Japanese (one failed), one was Chinese (failed), one was from India (success), and five were from ESA. Schiaparelli could be labeled as one of two ESA landers that failed. The other three ESA missions were/are orbiters/flybys and were successful.


An artist’s depiction of the Mars Polar Lander. Its rockets that were to slow its descent to the planet for landing prematurely cut off. The lander crashed into the surface at high speed. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

What about the remaining 22? They were all Russian – if you count their partial participation in the Trace Gas Orbiter then they total 23. Of those, 19 (19!!) failed. That’s an 83% failure rate – ouch.

Looking at it another way, ten of the thirty misses were launch failures and nine happened in 1971 or earlier. Fifteen are classified as “spacecraft failures.” That is a general bucket that includes loss of communication, failure to land, premature engine firing, and the aforementioned metric/standard conversion mishap. One, the Japanese Nozomi orbiter, ran out of fuel before it got to Mars.

Of the remaining 5 failures:

  • Beagle 2 (ESA) was a lander failure where it successfully made it to the surface, but failed to deploy properly.
  • The Chinese Yinghuo-1 is just listed as a “failure.” The Chinese shouldn’t get the blame for this one, it was riding along with the Russian Fobos-Grunt spacecraft that failed to get out of Earth orbit.
  • Two were called “partial failures” and were both Russian landers that made it to their targets (Mars and its moon Phobos), but failed shortly after landing.
  • One is the main subject of this story: Schiaparelli. To be fair, the jury is still out on this one, but it’s not looking good.




Feature image credit: ESA


Posted by Darren Beyer

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