Mars has suddenly become the next New York. Everyone wants to go there. While SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s cities and civilizations may take decades or centuries to materialize, a much less ambitious plan will come to fruition — hopefully! — as early as next week. European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency have already uploaded the necessary commands to the Trace Gas Orbiter and will together be attempting to land a probe on the the surface of the red planet.
Up until now, only NASA has succeed in landing a probe on Mars. Not for a lack of trying though. In the sixth and seventh decades of the past century, the Soviet Union’s space ambitions manifested themselves in form of a bunch of Mars missions. However, none of them met with any success and all of the probes crashed or weren’t able to survive the landing. The European Space Agency’s record is similarly patchy and its Beagle 2, lost contact with Earth soon after landing in 2003.
One of the latest non NASA attempt came in 2011, when the Russians attempted to land a space probe on Phobos, one of Mars’ moons. However, the attempt was unsuccessful again and indeed, the spacecraft didn’t even succeed in leaving the earth’s atmosphere.
Be that as may, both ESA and Roscosmos are eager to break their string of bad luck by finally managing a successful and operational landing on the red, perchlorate stuffed soil. The ExoMars mission, is the agencies latest joint effort towards the same direction. As part of the mission, the Schiaparelli EDM lander was launched together with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on 14 March 2016. It is this lander that will be attempting to reach the Martian surface on the 19th of October.
The objectives of the mission are as follows:
- To search for possible bio signatures of Martian life, past or present.
- To characterize the water and geochemical distribution as a function of depth in the shallow subsurface.
- To study the surface environment and identify hazards to future manned missions to Mars.
- To investigate the planet’s subsurface and deep interior to better understand the evolution and habitability of Mars.
- Achieve incremental steps ultimately culminating in a sample return flight.
However, these objectives are part of the greater scheme of things that involve achieving and developing technology that is capable of landing larger payloads on Mars. The agencies also want to use the ExoMars to perfect their ability to exploit the Solar power available on the surface of the planet and further explore it using a rover.
However, the main aim of the rover still remains somewhere along the lines of making a successful landing. The ExoMars program also has a larger payload that will be launched in 2020. However, probably considering the success rate of both these agencies in landing probes upon the planet, they have decided to proceed with care. That said, engineers and scientists from the organization will be keeping a careful eye on this mission and will be logging everything, so in case there is an accident — which hopefully there won’t be — and the lander is unable to reach the surface, subsequent attempts will have a better chance of success.
So yes. The final commands have been sent. On October 16th, Schiaparelli and TGO will separate. Three days later, the Schiaparelli will enter Mars’ atmosphere and attempt to make a successful landing. The TGO meanwhile, will continue hanging around and will serve as a relay satellite for future missions — at least until 2022. Well, let’s hope the combination of parachutes and thrusters to be deployed by the Schiaparelli lande, are enough to see it safely to the Martian surface.