The European Space Agency just can’t seem to catch a break: the organization hasn’t been able to successfully land a space probe on Mars, with the latest setback marked by the identification of the crash site of ExoMars’ Schiaparelli lander. The ESA’s previous attempt at putting a probe on mars was the ill-fated Mars Express Beagle 2 lander, in 2003.
The probe entered Mars’ atmosphere on October 19, but contact was lost seconds after its descent parachute was jettisoned. An investigation into the probe’s telemetry shows that the parachute was released too early, and the descent thrusters did not fire long enough, resulting in the probe crashing into the Martian landscape.
Schiaparelli’s orbital counterpart, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, is still functioning properly in orbit, and is equipped with sensors designed to detect methane emissions — a potential byproduct of metabolizing lifeforms. The orbiter is due to start mapping the Martian atmosphere sometime next year.
Hurtling into the dark depths of outer space, the New Horizons space probe, having visited Pluto last year, has been given a new target to investigate: a newly-discovered object in the Kuiper Belt called MU69. MU69 is a relatively small object, between 30-45 km (20-30 miles) in diameter, and lies 2.6 billion kilometers (1.6 billion miles) past Pluto’s orbit.
The distant object has been imaged buy the Hubble Space Telescope, revealing that its surface has a reddish hue, possibly deeper in color than Pluto’s surface, and is theorized to be caused by deposits of organic compounds such as methane and ethane that have been irradiated by ultraviolet rays. New Horizons is expected to make its rendezvous with this new target on January 1, 2019.
And also out on the far fringes of the solar system is another possible dwarf planet, albeit both larger and farther out than MU69, called 2014 UZ224. At 530 kilometers (330 miles) across and 13.7 billion km (8.5 billion miles) from the Sun, the planetoid takes an estimated 1,100 years to make a single orbit.
2014 UZ224 was accidentally discovered by a team of astronomers with the Dark Energy Survey, using the ominous-sounding Dark Energy Camera (DECam), based in Chile. The DECam was designed to study the effects of dark energy, the force theorized to be causing the expansion of the universe, on distant stars and galaxies. Expecting the objects being imaged by the DECam to remain fairly static against the background, the researchers were surprised to find a faster-moving object — the signature of a celestial body within our own solar system.