Schiaparelli probe
ESA

The Schiaparelli probe's crash landing on Mars last month was caused by a sensor malfunction, the European Space Agency has found.

A preliminary investigation discovered that the onboard computer tasked with measuring rotation of the lander mistakenly thought it was much closer to the planet's surface -- when in fact it was still approximately 3.7 km (2.29 miles) above Mars, CNN reported.

The ESA said in an update Wednesday that the glitch triggered a knock-on effect, resulting in the lander plummeting into the planet at 335 mph (540 kph).

Schiaparelli was on a test-run for a future rover meant to seek out evidence of life, past or present, but it fell silent seconds before its scheduled touchdown on October 19.

After trawling through mountains of data, the European Space Agency said that while much of the mission went according to plan, a computer that measured the rotation of the lander hit a maximum reading, knocking other calculations off track.

That led the navigation system to think the lander was much lower than it was, causing its parachute and braking thrusters to be deployed prematurely.

"The erroneous information generated an estimated altitude that was negative—that is, below ground level," the ESA said in a statement.

"This in turn successively triggered a premature release of the parachute and the backshell (heat shield), a brief firing of the braking thrusters and finally activation of the on-ground systems as if Schiaparelli had already landed. In reality, the vehicle was still at an altitude of around 3.7 km."

The 230 million-euro ($251-million) Schiaparelli had travelled for seven years and 496 million kilometres (308 million miles) onboard the so-called Trace Gas Orbiter to within a million kilometres of Mars when it set off on its own mission to reach the surface.

The crash was Europe's second failed attempt to reach the alien surface.

The first attempt, in 2003, also ended in disappointment when the British-built Beagle 2 robot lab disappeared without trace after separating from its mothership, Mars Express, phys.org reported.

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