On Wednesday, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander will separate from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to make a historic landing the surface of Mars. The robotic lander, named for Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, will add Europe’s to the short list of space agencies who have landed a working probe on the surface of Mars, a list that, for the moment, only includes the US, the Soviet Union, and modern Russia. Europe came close in 2003 with the Beagle 2 lander, but lost contact with the probe upon landing.
Flight director Michel Denis at the ESA emphasized the high-stakes of the mission after the 2003 attempt, saying “It is very important that it goes right. It will be the first successful Mars landing for Europe. We have to keep a cool head.”
The lander will descend for six minutes through the Martian atmosphere, at 21,000 km per hour, facing temperatures of as much as 1500 Celsius. It will land on the Meridiani Planum, a flat region of the planet near the equator. The Schiaparelli lander will go into a power-saving hibernation mode after it separates from the Trace Gas Orbiter, until it approaches its landing site on the surface.
The mission is a joint project with the Russian space agency, the Roscosmos State Corporation. One aspect of the mission is to search for life on Mars. The lander will assess conditions on the ground and test technology for the upcoming ExoMars rover, expected to launch on its own mission to the red planet in 2020. It is battery powered, and intended to last about two days on the planet, obtaining weather measurements and recording electrical fields close to the surface.
The Orbiter will take months to get into proper orbit, including two hours passing behind the planet during which it will lose communication with earth, leaving mission controllers in suspense until it makes it around to the other side. Expected to be in orbit and fully operational at the end of next year, it will look for trace amounts of methane gas, which were mysteriously detected by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter in 2004. The plumes of gas emerging from the surface could be a result of natural reactions in the rocks, but could also indicate the presence of microbial life.
According to Andrew Coates, who works on the ExoMars rover at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, “Methane on Mars is a longstanding puzzle. Is it coming from geological activity under the surface or is it coming from life? Either of those would be amazing, but life would of course be stunning.”
Coates continued, saying, “The ExoMars rover will be the first mission in recent times to look for signs of life. Nasa’s rovers have followed the water and made important discoveries, but what they haven’t been able to do is actually get to the life question. That’s the really new thing we’ll be able to do with the rover.”