We now have the most definitive sign yet—courtesy of a NASA orbiter—that the European Space Agency's Mars lander crashed onto the planet's surface in what the AP describes as a "fiery ball of rocket fuel." ESA lost contact with the Schiaparelli lander Wednesday, approximately 50 seconds before it was supposed to land on Mars. What exactly happened to the lander has been a mystery, but a crash seemed likely. Now, images from a NASA orbiter released Friday show an approximately 6,500-square-foot dark patch on the Martian surface a few miles from where the lander was supposed to touch down, the BBC reports. That spot is likely the result of an exploding lander.
ESA reports the lander's parachute deployed then released as planned (it's probably the small light spot in the new image). But the lander's nine thrusters fired for only a few seconds instead of half a minute for some reason. The lander probably free-fell for up to 2.5 miles before hitting Mars at more than 185mph. And since the thrusters didn't use much of the stored rocket fuel, a decent-sized explosion was probably the result. NASA plans to get a better picture of the crash site next week. The lander was meant to be testing technology for another ESA landing in 2020. Its failure means NASA is still the only agency to successfully land a robotic vehicle on Mars, having done so several times. (Read more Mars stories.)