A tiny lander ‘Schiaparelli’ despatched to Mars on a trial run had crashed and possibly exploded on the Red Planet.
Schiaparelli was on a test-run for a future rover meant to seek out evidence of life, past or present, on the Red Planet.
But it fell silent seconds before scheduled touchdown, while its mothership Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) entered Mars’ orbit as planned.
The pair comprised phase one of a project dubbed ExoMars through which Europe and Russia seek to join the United States in operating a succesful rover on Mars.
Europe’s 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, in 2003.
The 230 million-euro ($251-million) Schiaparelli had travelled for seven years and 496 million kilometres (308 million miles) onboard the TGO to within a million kilometres of Mars, when it set off on its own mission to reach the surface.
Since the 1960s, more than half of US, Russian and European attempts to operate craft on the Martian surface have failed.
The next part of the mission is the start of the TGO’s science mission in 2018, sniffing Mars’ atmosphere for gases potentially excreted by living organisms.