The ExoMars’ Schiaparelli module was separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), and it will enter the Martian orbit on Wednesday, after its launch back in March from Kazakhstan.
The module will enter the orbit first, while the TGO must maneuver not to crash against the surface. The main objective of the mission is to analyze the methane in the Martian atmosphere.
The European Space Agency’s quest for Mars
The ExoMars mission’s first stage was sent by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA) to survey the methane levels in the Martian atmosphere, an organic gas emitted by carbon-based organisms on Earth. Previous Mars missions have found significant amounts of methane, but there has not been a mission dedicated to its analysis.
Learning more about the methane found on Mars will provide more clues regarding the possibility of biological processes in the Red Planet’s surface. It could also help identify certain geological events that end up releasing the gas into the atmosphere.
The next step for ExoMars is to set the precedents for sending a rover, where all of the previous Mars rovers have been sent by NASA and none by the ESA. The Schiaparelli probe would be the first successful Mars landing performed by the European Space Agency.
Schiaparelli is set to land on Mars at 10:42 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, while the remainder of the spacecraft should enter orbit. After the probe lands, images provided by the Martian module will be shown to the public.
The probe has to land without being torn into pieces. To do so, its design resembles a cone, and it features parachutes, a heat shield, and brake boosters so it can land on Mars by reducing its speed from 13,000 miles per hour.
The second stage of the ExoMars mission will be sending a rover to the Martian surface, which is expected to take place somewhere on 2020 due to delays in the current phase. The Schiaparelli module will yield information to the ESA about Mars landings, which will be of use to finally send their 680-pound Mars rover for extraterrestrial missions.
The first stage of the ExoMars mission is currently taking place, but just before the probe was launched, one of the booster stages exploded in the proximity. Thankfully, no equipment resulted damaged in the process.
The Schiaparelli probe and the Trace Gas Orbiter are planned to survey any sign of life in Mars through the analysis of methane. The modules are also expected to analyze the distribution of water-borne structures on the Martian surface, while also gathering information about any hazards that may be present if a manned mission to Mars were to occur. The first stage of ExoMars is also serving as a practice run for landing payloads onto the Red Planet and determining the availability of generating solar electric power for the upcoming Mars rover.
The launch array is comprised of the Schiaparelli probe and the Trace Gas Orbiter. The latter is an atmospheric gas analyzer, which also served to deliver the Schiaparelli lander to the surface of Mars. The TGO is expected to remain in orbit even after the ExoMars rover has made its landing in 2020. On the other hand, the main purpose of the Schiaparelli lander is to provide more information to the ESA and the RFSA about Mars landings. It is also supposed to measure humidity, atmospheric pressure, surface temperature, and other meteorological indicators.
Europe prepares to send its Mars rover
ExoMars was initially planned as a Mars rover launch in 2011 aboard a Russian rocket. NASA and ESA worked together to develop the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative, but the first plans for the rover appeared to be suboptimal for an early launch. The mission was subsequently plugged to other missions, alternating between U.S. and Russia-led launch initiatives.
In 2011, there was an important budget deficit, which forced the ESA to cancel plans of launching a Mars rover. New designs of the rover were proposed, and a prospective launch for 2018 was planned. NASA then exited their participation in the ExoMars project and decided to focus on their own research, leaving ExoMars in need of critical restructuring. Two years later, Russia entered the partnership and supported the launch of ESA space vehicles, with the condition that Russian instruments were included in the spacecraft and scientific results must be co-proprietary with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The 2018 launch of the second stage of the ExoMars mission had to be delayed mainly due to events in the delivery of critical scientific components, which forced the launch team to reschedule for July 2020.
China is also planning a 2020 Mars mission, particularly by launching a Mars orbiter, a lander, and placing a rover on the Red Planet’s surface. The mission also began as a partnership with Russia, but after a Russian rocket had crashed while it was carrying a Chinese orbiter, China decided to launch its own Mars program. The Chinese Mars Mission is also expected to measure the levels of methane in the Martian atmosphere.