After the cold and silent journey to Mars the ExoMars program is about to land the Schiaparelli module on the desolate surface. With about 7 months of travel from Earth, the Red Planet is still the most attractive planet for space exploration. And it might as well be our first step to colonizing the galaxy. The mission of ExoMars: to determine if life has ever existed on Mars.
Left image: ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli during vibration testing. Credit: ESA–S. Corvaja, 2015
Right image: ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The ‘Trace Gas Orbiter’ TGO, as the spacecraft currently orbiting Mars is called, has been built and launched as a joint endeavor between the ‘European Space Administraton’ ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
It was successfully launched on March 14, 2016 on a Proton rocket. The date provided a launch window which takes advantage of the relative positions of Earth and Mars.
Three days ago the spacecraft separated into two parts. The largest part of the TGO remains in an orbit around Mars. However, until March 2018 it will perform a small engine burn and use aerobraking to lower its orbit into the atmosphere. The final orbit will be about 400 km above the surface. From that position it will use its sensors to locate sources that produce gases of biological importance, such as methane. And it will continue doing this autonomously for an incredible 2 years.
The lander, which is the second part, is called the ‘entry, descent and landing demonstrator module’ EDM. It makes a violent atmosphere intrusion with about 21.000 km/h. It will deploy parachutes and slow down using aerodynamic drag. In the final phase of the landing the lander will ignite its thrusters for a gentle touch down.
The designated landing zone was picked for its low elevation. The low elevation provides a relative thick atmosphere to slow down in the atmosphere compared to other regions on the mountainous red surface.
Once Schiaparelli has safely landed it will communicate with engineers on Earth through the already orbiting probes Mars Express and a NASA Relay Orbiter. From the sandy surface the sensors installed on the lander will perform surface experiments. It lacks electrical power and on-board space to accommodate large instruments like drills and scoops.
A very useful previous mission by NASA was the Mars Global Surveyor, mapping the surface with a laser altimeter. For a complete list of Mars exploration missions see this list.
For ESA, the success of ExoMars is extremely important, because it will make Europe part of the space race to Mars and offer at least a little bit of competition to NASA’s long list of exploration missions.
Schiaparelli (EDM) is scheduled to touch the surface and begin its science operations on October 19. For now it will continue orbiting through the Martian atmosphere and slowly but steadily descent.
“I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” ~ Elon Musk