Date(s) - 19/10/2016
The ExoMars 2016 mission will enter orbit around the Red Planet on 19 October. At the same time, its Schiaparelli lander will descend to the surface.
The ‘Exo’ in ‘ExoMars’ refers to the study of ‘exobiology’, the possible existence of life beyond Earth (sometimes also referred to as ‘astrobiology’). Mars shows evidence for having had environmental conditions (suitable temperatures and liquid water) early in its history, some 3.5 billion years ago, capable of supporting primitive life. The primary goal of the ExoMars programme is to search for signs of past and extant life on Mars, hence the name.
The ExoMars programme comprises two missions.
- The first launched on 14 March 2016 and consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, descent and landing Demonstrator Module (EDM, also known as Schiaparelli).
- The second launch is planned for 2020 and will include two elements on the surface of Mars, namely a rover and a fixed science platform. TGO will also act as a communications relay for the 2020 rover.
On 19 October, Schiaparelli will enter the Martian atmosphere at an altitude of about 121 km and a speed of nearly 21 000 km/h. Less than six minutes later it will have landed on Mars, on a region in Meridiani Planum.
ExoMars is a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and comprises the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator.
TGO will make a detailed inventory of Mars’ atmospheric gases, with particular interest in rare gases like methane, which implies that there is an active, current source. TGO aims to measure methane’s geographical and seasonal dependence and help to determine whether it stems from a geological or biological source.
TGO will start its science mission at the end of 2017, following a year of complex aerobraking manoeuvres to circularise its orbit. It will also act as a relay for ESA’s ExoMars 2020 rover.
Schiaparelli will separate from TGO on 16 October, entering the atmosphere for a six-minute descent to a region in Meridiani Planum, on 19 October.
It will test a range of technologies to enable a controlled descent and landing on Mars in preparation for future missions, including a heatshield, a parachute, a propulsion system and a crushable structure.
Schiaparelli also carries a small science package that will record the wind speed, humidity, pressure and temperature at its landing site, as well as obtain the first measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that may provide insight into how dust storms are triggered.
The separation of Schiaparelli from TGO will be covered online. Media are invited to join mission experts at ESOC on 19 October to follow the orbit insertion of TGO and the landing of Schiaparelli, and to attend a briefing on 20 October when the first descent camera images are expected.
image: Artist’s impression of the Schiaparelli module on the surface of Mars. (ESA/ATG medialab)