ExoMars mission prepares to reach Mars early next week

A mission designed to analyze gases in the Martian atmosphere and send a lander to the surface of the Red Planet is scheduled to arrive at its destination this week, officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) confirmed in a recently-released media advisory.

The ExoMars mission, a collaboration between the ESA and the Russian-based Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, is comprised of two spacecraft: the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), a probe which will make a detailed inventory of the different gases in the planet’s atmosphere, and the Schiaparelli lander, which will complete its descent three days after arrival.

The two ExoMars spacecraft launched together on March 14, and according to Space.com, they will begin their separation upon arriving at Mars on October 19. Upon their arrival, the Schiaparelli lander will detach from the orbiter (which is carrying it to the Red Planet), and three days later, it will descend and land in the region informally known as Meridiani Planum.

Schiaparelli’s descent, which will bring the lander close to Mars’ equator, will reportedly occur at a speed of approximately 13,000 mph (21,000 km/h), and the spacecraft will have around six minutes to slow to a safe landing velocity. It will accomplish this by using sensors to monitor its altitude, starting when it reaches a height of four miles (seven km) above the ground.

Once the lander reaches a height of roughly 6 1/2 feet (two meters), it will briefly hover before cutting its thrusters and falling to the ground. The process, which is detailed in a new video from the ESA (seen above), will be followed by a planned test of Schiaparelli’s science instruments, which agency officials noted is scheduled to last for at least two days.

Lander to study surface conditions; orbiter to seek source of rare gases

A large part of the Schiaparelli lander’s mission is to test out several new technologies in order to prepare for future missions to the Red Planet, including the upcoming ExoMars 2020 project. Among those technologies are a heatshield, parachute and propulsion system, the ESA said.

Furthermore, the lander is equipped with a small suite of instruments that will record the wind speed, humidity, pressure and temperature near its landing site. It will also be collecting the first ever measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars – something that researchers believe could help them learn more about the origins of the dust storms that take place.

ExoMars 2016

What will we learn about the Red Planet? (Credit: ESA/MediaLab)

Last week, ESA controllers uploaded a series of time-tagged operations that make sure that the lander would be able to carry out its mission, even if they lost contact with it. Those commands, which were uploaded in two separate batches, will also ensure that Schiaparelli is able to wake up from its power-saving sleep mode in time to communicate with researchers on Earth.

As for the TGO probe, it was designed to collect information about the gases in the atmosphere of the Red Planet, with a particular interest in rare gases such as methane, in order to determine if there is an active source somewhere on or beneath the surface. The goal is to determine if the gas is originating from a geological source or a biological one, according to the agency.

The orbiter will undergo a series of complex aerobraking maneuvers to correct its orbit upon its arrival, the ESA noted. That process will take nearly a full year, meaning that TGO will not start its science observations until late 2017. The probe will also be serving as a relay for the ExoMars 2020 mission, which will feature a rover and surface science platform, they added.


Image credit: ESA/Videolab