ExoMars mission, a partial failure and a life lesson in the conquest of knowledge

« The loss of the module on Mars is a chance for the European Space Agency to learn ", Headlined the magazine Nature on October 25, six days after the crash of the Schiaparelli lander.

PFor nearly two days, astronomers did not know what happened until NASA's MRO orbiter spotted the impact site on the 20th. The data accumulated before the failure will be instructive. , doing this landing missed an opportunity for subsequent success.

The mission did not only involve the landing, but the putting into orbit of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) intended to study gases in the atmosphere of Mars, particularly methane in order to determine whether it is of biological or geochemical origin, and therefore whether or not it is a signature of the possible microbial life in the Martian subsoil assumed to be warm enough to harbor water.

In 2013, NASA showered observers with Scottish by announcing that there was no methane on Mars, whereas from Earth astronomers had believed to detect it and that the Martian probes abounded in their direction. The assumptions overturned by the Curiosity rover in 2013. A disappointment quickly chased away by new detections, by the same Curiosity scout the following year, confirming the decision of the European and Russian space agencies, associated since the beginning of the decade after the withdrawal of NASA from this project, to therefore send this two-part mission, one of scientific analysis, the other technical as for the landing.

Learning from mistakes, a key to explorer success

The Schiaparelli crash does not therefore mean the failure of the mission, since the scientific aspect is not affected. But the failed landing is itself a source of knowledge. It was important to demonstrate the ability to land on Mars before the initiation of the third part of the ExoMars mission and the dispatch of a rover in 2020, connected to the TGO serving as a relay with the Earth for the transmission of information. Before crashing, Schiaparelli was able to send information to the orbiter about descent, which was relayed back to Earth, and it is possible that a computer malfunction was the cause of the accident, the distance to the ground may have been incorrectly assessed. What was ultimately also a test may have given the keys to better prepare for the future mission.

The heroic age of expeditions on the very inhospitable Antarctic continent, where the weather conditions are extreme, have been all the braver as many explorers have lost their lives to profit from their passion. Thirteen men perished on the outskirts of the continent or while trampling it. Today, various countries have settled there and carry out scientific missions, and we even organize a marathon every year when the conditions are favorable, certainly not at the level of the South Pole that the explorers aimed at, but made possible thanks to the missions of a century ago. The transies and murderous expeditions succeeded - in the sense of "success", "what comes after (failure)" - the human settlement with about 1 inhabitants. As space chess, accepted in advance by explorers inclined to risk death to live out their curiosity and their passion, have advanced knowledge.

In his article Recovering from failure, the example of the great explorers, from October 29, 2013, the magazine National Geographic delves into the souls of adventurers and scientists who try and may fail, but whose passion drives science forward. The monthly quotes in particular the Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée who, wanting to avoid dying like other explorers seeking to reach the North Pole by land, decided to "take off in a hydrogen balloon to be the first to discover the North Pole, then as unknown as Mars ”.

He left his life there in 1897, like his two traveling companions, another engineer and a photographer. Their bodies were discovered thirty-three years later, frozen. They must have landed urgently on the pack ice, and their logs revealed that they were dead three months later. An unforeseen event, but the idea was good and could have turned into a success. In 1926, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had previously wintered in Antarctica, became the first man to reach the North Pole, with certainty. On board an airship : the airway initiated by Andrée was relevant.

Scientific journals ask to know "negative" results, because they can advance science

In the same article, the National Geographic discusses the importance of failure in science that researchers are trying to cover up so as not to risk losing current or potential funding. But, the magazine notes, “in the last decade at least half a dozen journals (mostly in medicine and ecology) have requested reports of failed experiments, studies and clinical trials. Because “negative” results can ultimately have positive effects ”. Foundations that financially support researchers are starting to demand information about both successes and failures, because if you learn simple lessons from them, you "gain on a larger scale."

Recently, physicists, and among them astrophysicists - and especially cosmologists - have expressed their deep disappointment at a discovery, that of the non-existence of the particle X. The detection of a signal at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC for the acronym in English, usually used), the famous particle accelerator which makes it possible in particular to advance cosmology, gave hope for a discovery on the first moments of the universe. Since a signal was believed to be perceived in December 2015, many scientists were in turmoil as scientific publications about this hope at the LHC emerged, with the rigor necessary for science, more cautious than articles giving willingly and only in extrapolation. And yet, in the face of disappointment, there is the certainty of a discovery - because the word is appropriate -, the certainty of the inexistence of this particle, and, beyond, the avoidance of the loss of energy and time to continue research on it to the detriment of other less exotic which deserve also that researchers fight to deepen and develop knowledge. As they are ready to give their all for other areas of astrophysics.

Dance film I, we can hear these words from a poem by Dylan Thomas addressed to explorers on their way to new planets :

“Do not enter this dark night without violence, the old age should […] rage, rage against the death of light. Although men at their end know that the dark is deserved, because their words have not broken any lightning, they do not enter this good night without violence. "

Listening to these verses, we think of the curiosity of the painter Auguste Renoir who, on the day of his death, still marveled at his art:

“I think I'm about to learn something about this. "

The partial failure of the ExoMars program should not hide the success of the scientific component of the mission, and the provision of information regarding the landing; and, finally, Schiaparelli, fell only 5,4 kilometers from the target site, in its landing ellipse which was 100 x 15 kilometers, the agencies concerned were able to learn before the death of the machine, and have still learned since. " Try again. Fail again. Fail better ”, said Samuel Beckett, quoted by the National Geographic.

Hans-Søren Dag

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