Cosmic Chris reflects on Mars probe landing attempt

If you watched the Schiaparelli probe's landing attempt on Mars, you will have seen a control room filled with people wearing red polo shirts.

Chris White during the landing phase of the ExoMars project at the European Space Agency control centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Picture: Jürgen Mai for ESA
Chris White during the landing phase of the ExoMars project at the European Space Agency control centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Picture: Jürgen Mai for ESA

One of them was Chris White from Southwick, who designed them. But his more important task was flying the probe and its sister craft as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars project.

Chris planned and executed the landing sequences for the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which successfully entered Mars’ orbit, and the Schiaparelli probe, which experts believe crashed into the planet.

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Speaking at the ESA control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, Chris said: “For Schiaparelli, I think we got very close. We got through the atmosphere, the heat shield performed as it should have, the parachute deployed, we saw the thrusters come on, the radar was working. But until we get the final word we won’t know exactly the cause of the failure.”

Chris and his team spent Saturday to Wednesday last week working 12-hour shifts while the landing took place.

“We are all knackered! For several days all you see is the inside of the control room and your house. It’s like being in a bunker.”

Data from the Schiaparelli probe’s landing is still being analysed by the European Space Agency. It will be used in 2021 to get a six-wheeled rover onto the planet, and was the main purpose of the lander, according to Chris.

Now in place, the trace gas orbiter will measure methane and other gases in the atmosphere that could point to life on Mars.

Chris described being in the control room as the craft entered Mars’ orbit, which involved its thrusters burning for almost two-and-a-half hours, as ‘tense’.

“I was quite stressed, even though there wasn’t anything to do at that point; we were basically passengers. We were watching one line on a graph to see if it was still going in the right direction.”

Chris said he is now preparing for the next phase of the mission, which will change the craft’s orbit around Mars by skimming it across the edge of the atmosphere.

He said his family and friends have been very supportive – even if some were less keen on watching the landing than others.

“My mum is very proud; she has recorded me when I was on the telly so she is pretty chuffed.

“My nephews said it was boring, but considering they are five and two I will let them off!”

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