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Schiaparelli crashing into Mars wasn't exactly what the Exomars mission scientists were hoping for, but we're still going to get some useful information from the little probe's descent. And scientists have observed two of the brightest explosions ever recorded.

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Caitlin: It takes years of preparation and hundreds of people to make a space mission happen. But sometimes things still don’t go as planned. Like, last week, the Schiaparelli lander got to Mars -- and unfortunately, it arrived with a little more of a bang than we hoped.

The lander was part of ExoMars, a joint project between the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The two-mission program was designed to investigate whether there’s life on Mars, by studying the planet’s water, geochemistry, and atmosphere. And on October 19th, the first mission arrived as planned. It carried two spacecraft: the Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO, and the Schiaparelli lander.

The plan was that TGO would go into orbit around Mars and start searching for the source of methane in its atmosphere. Using space observatories and telescopes on Earth, we’ve seen that Mars’s atmosphere has a small amount of methane gas, but its levels change depending on the location and the time. Which means there’s likely something creating methane on the surface.

On Earth, methane is usually a sign of life, since it’s emitted by both plants and animals, but it’s also created by geochemical processes, like minerals breaking down. Right now, we don’t know if the methane on Mars is coming from a living source or geochemical one, so TGO is designed to create the most detailed model yet of Mars’s atmosphere to help figure that out.

Meanwhile, the Schiaparelli lander was made as a test run for the second part of ExoMars: a rover, which should launch in 2020. With Schiaparelli, the engineers wanted to make sure they had all the technology in place to successfully land on Mars before sending the rover. And at first, everything was going great! TGO was smoothly inserted into orbit, and initial reports say it’s still going well!

Unfortunately, Schiaparelli had a rough landing. And by that I mean... it crashed. Just 50 seconds before the lander reached the surface, we suddenly lost contact with it. The lander was supposed to have an easy, six-minute descent controlled by nine thrusters. But instead, it started free-falling between two and four kilometers above the surface, meaning it crashed into Mars at over 300 kilometers per hour. Imagine a race car crashing into a brick wall. It didn’t go well.

Using the low-res camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is currently orbiting Mars, NASA was able to snap a few photos of the landing site, and it looks like there was a crash right where Schiaparelli was supposed to land. High-resolution images will be available soon, but it seems pretty clear what happened. Engineers will have the full story within the next few weeks, but it looks like the parachute may have jettisoned too early, or the thrusters didn’t activate for as long as they should have.

But even though Schiaparelli’s landing didn’t go as planned, the mission was not a failure! The Trace Gas Orbiter will be doing important research on Mars’s atmosphere until 2020, and even the initial descent data from Schiaparelli will help the ESA and Roscosmos, when the time comes for them to put their lander on Mars.

We all know that space exploration isn’t easy, but we’re learning more with every mission. Meanwhile, in galaxies far, far away, scientists have discovered weird bursts of X-rays that are stronger than almost anything else that they’ve seen before!

In a study published in the journal Nature, astronomers say they observed what may turn out to be a brand-new class of space explosion, taking place in two different galaxies. The star systems where these explosions are happening appear to be normal binary systems, where either a black hole or a neutron star is pulling matter from a companion star.

And typically, these two systems emit some X-rays, just like plenty of other binary systems do. But every few days, something causes them to flare up. Within about a minute, they become hundreds of times brighter than they were before, emitting more X-rays than almost anything that’s ever been observed.

At these peaks, these objects qualify as what are called ULXs, or ultra-luminous X-ray sources. Now, there’s another kind of ULX that we know as magnetars, young neutron stars with powerful magnetic fields. But these new systems are hundreds to thousands of times brighter than any magnetar we’ve ever seen.

They also stay brighter for longer, peaking for about an hour, compared to magnetars, which fade after only a few seconds. And unlike magnetars, which tend to be pretty young, astronomically speaking, these systems have only been seen around elliptical galaxies, which are mainly groups of older stars.

The systems were found using data from NASA’s Chandra Observatory and the ESA’s XMM-Newton Observatory, two X-ray space telescopes launched in 1999. After searching through 70 galaxies, astronomers found one of the new ULXs in a galaxy 47 million light-years away, and the other 14 million light-years away, near the galaxy Centaurus A.

Astronomers are still trying to figure out what’s creating these flares, they think they may be caused by matter falling into black holes. But, again, they’re not sure yet. So, exploring the universe is hard. But every once in awhile, you find something cool and weird enough that makes it all worthwhile.

Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow Space! And a very special thank-you to our Patreon President of Space, SR Foxly, for making this show happen. If you want to help us keep making episodes like this, you can go to and if you just want to continue getting smarter with us, go to and subscribe.