Until now, only NASA has had success in properly landing equipment on Mars, starting with the Viking 1 lander in 1975. Russia and, more recently, Europe can’t be blamed for lack of trying.
The European Space Agency’s last attempt at a Mars landing was in June 2003. While the Beagle 2 successfully touched Martian ground, two of its solar panels failed to deploy, rendering communication with Earth impossible.
The ExoMars Program might finally put Europe on Mars starting with October 16th. On that day, two adjoined space vehicles will reach the Martian orbit. One of them is the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), created by both ESA and Roscosmos, the Russian state space agency.
TGO’s main mission is to start orbiting around Mars and probe its atmosphere. The mission should start at the end of 2017, because achieving a circular orbit around the Red Planet takes the TGO about one year of aerobraking.
Scientists at ESA are interested in the small amounts of methane gas believed to be found in the Martian atmosphere. On Earth, most of this rare gas comes from biological sources such as microbes that live oxygen-free. Something must be producing methane on Mars, and ESA is determined to find out whether it’s some geological phenomenon, or if there are actual microorganisms living in the Martian soil.
The other part of the mission is the Mars landing attempt. The vehicle specially designed for this purpose is the EDM Schiaparelli. It will separate itself from the TGO on October 16th, but it will only begin its descent three days later. Come October 19th, Schiaparelli will attempt the dangerous landing maneuver.
It should the 1,300-pound object around six minutes to land, using a combination of parachutes and thrusters. The impact of landing should be absorbed by the vehicle’s crumple zone. Schiaparelli will only be active for a maximum of three days, as it only has a limited battery and is not equipped with solar panels.
Even if the landing fails, scientists will gather all the information from the Mars landing in order to prepare for the most important stage of the ExoMars mission.
“Even if it does not work, we will gain a lot of information,” said Michel Denis, ExoMars flight director.
In 2020, ESA will launch a rover that is not only supposed to roam the Martian desert, but also drill into the planet’s surface, searching for the sources of the precious methane gas.
Image source: Flickr