Thirteen years after its first, failed attempt to place a rover on Mars, Europe is to reach a crucial stage tomorrow in a fresh quest to scour the Red Planet, this time with Russia.
Mission controllers are to instruct a spacecraft about 175 million kilometers from Earth to release and steer a paddling pool-sized lander toward Mars’ surface.
Scheduled to arrive on Wednesday next week, the short-lived lander’s sole purpose is to prepare the way for a subsequent rover that will drill into the Martian surface.
“Our goal here is to prove we can get to the surface, do science, take data,” European Space Agency (ESA) science adviser Mark McCaughrean said ahead of tomorrow’s lander-release maneuvers.
Dubbed Schiaparelli, the 600kg lander is to separate from its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), after a seven-month, 496 million kilometer trek from Earth.
The lander and the TGO — which will enter into orbit around Mars to test the atmosphere for gases — comprises the first phase of the joint European-Russian ExoMars project. The second phase, due for launch in 2020 after a two-year funding delay, is the ExoMars rover, for which Schiaparelli will be testing entry and soft-landing technology.
More than half of US, Russian and European attempts to land and operate craft on the Martian surface since the 1960s have failed.
The last time Europe tried, the British-built Beagle 2 disappeared without a trace after separating from the Mars Express mothership in December 2003.
It was finally spotted in January last year in a NASA picture of Mars. It showed that even though Beagle 2 failed to establish contact, it had successfully landed.
The US is alone in having successfully operated rovers on Mars.
Scientists say traces of methane in Mars’ thin atmosphere might be an indicator of something stirring underground.
Methane also does not survive the sun’s ultraviolet rays for long, McCaughrean said. “And so for it actually to exist in the Martian atmosphere, it must be coming from something. Something must be making methane.”
One possible source is underground volcanoes. Another is single-celled microbes called methanogens, which on Earth live in places without oxygen such as animal stomachs, where they convert carbon dioxide into methane.
It is hoped that the ExoMars rover — equipped to drill 2m below the surface — will yield some clues as to the source of Mars’ methane.
In the meantime, Schiaparelli’s exploits will be crucial in designing the rover’s landing gear.
The lander will separate from the TGO at about 2:30am GMT tomorrow, about 1 million kilometers from the Red Planet.
It is to enter the atmosphere on Wednesday next week at an altitude of about 121km and a speed of nearly 21,000kph.
The hot and bumpy trip through Mars’ atmosphere will take six minutes.
To protect the lander, an “aeroshell” is to absorb and dissipate the heat generated by atmospheric drag for the first three or four minutes.
When it has reached an altitude of 11km and slowed to 1,700kph, a supersonic parachute will be deployed, the ESA said.
After slowing further and jettisoning its shell and parachute, Schiaparelli will activate nine speed-control thrusters. It will briefly hover at an altitude of 2m before cutting its engines and falling to the surface.