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Schiaparelli Mars Lander May Have Exploded On Impact, European Agency Says

Instead of drifting gently onto Mars' surface, the Schiaparelli Mars lander hit the planet hard — and possibly exploded. That's the word from the European Space Agency, which says new images taken by NASA show the possible crash site.

The NASA images, taken on Oct. 20, show two recent changes to the landscape on Mars' surface — one dark blotch, and one white speck — which are being interpreted as Schiaparelli's parachute and its crash site.

With the warning that analysis is still ongoing, here are the details the ESA is sharing Friday:

That sequence of events followed the lander's largely trouble-free approach to the Martian surface, a trip that was being widely watched on Wednesday, when the craft lost contact with the ESA and its Mars mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, just before its touchdown.

It's believed that the Schiaparelli craft successfully navigated its orbital insertion burn and deployed its parachute as planned. But things went awry in the final phase of its landing, as the lander's nine thrusters turned off too early to ease the craft onto the surface.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured images of the likely crash site as part of a plan to document and collect data about the lander's arrival to Mars. The new features were easily evident when compared to another image of the same area that was taken in May. Describing the new image, NASA says:

Despite the loss of its lander, the ESA still has a working science mission in Mars orbit, as the Trace Gas Orbiter will devote itself to studying methane on the red planet. AsNPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reported earlier this week:

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.