Artist’s impression showing the Trace Gas Orbiter beginning entry into Mars orbit on 19 October 2016. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The ExoMars 2016 mission is off to an uncertain start, despite the successful insertion of the Trace Gas Orbiter into the Martian atmosphere on 19 October.
No signal has yet been received to confirm the Schiaparelli lander has arrived safely on the surface of the planet.
The ExoMars project is the latest chapter in the search for evidence of life on the Red Planet.
While today’s Mars is a hostile, barren environment, scientists believe that the planet was once a warmer, wetter, more habitable world; most likely during the first billion years following planetary formation.
Studies of Martian history have concluded that conditions during this early time frame were similar to those on a young Earth when microbes first began to take hold.
The spacecraft carrying the lander and orbiter launched on 14 March 2016 and the two components separated on 16 October; the lander travelling towards its landing site and the orbiter making its way to orbit in the planet’s atmosphere.
An animation showing the Schiaparelli lander’s descent to the Martian surface. Credit: ESA
But scientists are still trying to confirm the fate of the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent & Landing Demonstrator Module.
The orbiter’s insertion burn lasted from 13:05 to 15:24 GMT on 19 October, while the Schiaparelli lander entered the Martian atmosphere 107 minutes thereafter.
This will help them confirm whether or not the Schiaparelli lander reached the surface safely.
The latest data confirms the entry and descent stages were completed without a hitch, but that the ejection of the back heat shield might have occurred too early, and the thrusters designed to slow the lander’s descent did not engage for as long as necessary.
ExoMars 2016 is the latest mission in to search for signs of life on the Red Planet, and will pave the way for a further mission to Mars planned for 2020.
As part of the 2016 mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter will search for signs of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be a sign of biological or geological activity.
Previous investigations have detected small amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere, and this could be evidence of activity occurring or having relatively recently occurred on the Red Planet.
Meanwhile, the Schiaparelli lander’s role is to act as a demonstration enabling scientists back on Earth to better understand the most effective way of landing rovers on Mars.
While the lander is planned to spend some time monitoring the pressure, temperature and transparency of the Martian atmosphere, along with wind speed and direction, humidity and other measurements, its scientific investigations will be short-lived as it is only built to last a maximum of four Martian days.
As well as testing the current methods of landing robots on Mars, the Schiaparelli lander’s mission could also carry implications for future human missions to the Red Planet.
“ExoMars is an important mission, certainly for science, but also for advancing the space technology that will put humans on Mars in the next couple of decades,” says Cornell University’s Mason Peck, a former NASA chief technologist.
“There are three major technical hurdles for future attempts to put humans on Mars, all of which can be overcome with enough investment in space technologies: creating the entry, descent, and landing technology to put at least 20 metric tons on the surface of Mars at once; sufficient, lightweight radiation protection for the crew during the flight and on the planet’s surface; and propulsion that delivers the mass-efficient performance of chemical propellants without cryogenics boiling off during the flight.”
The ExoMars 2016 mission will also pave the way for a further mission to the Red Planet in 2020 that will see a European and a Russian rover delivered to Mars to search for signs of life on and below the surface.
“ESA and its international team have added an important achievement to the exploration of Mars by putting the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around the Red Planet as a platform for science investigation and communication infrastructure,” says Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
“Landing a spacecraft on Mars is extremely challenging. We admire the initiative and development of the teams that worked on the Schiaparelli lander that was part of the ExoMars mission.
International collaborations, as well as future work with private industry remain crucial elements of the Journey to Mars and beyond.”