ESA Arrives at Mars! | Vol. 3 / No. 50.3

The ESA/Roscosmos TGO and Schiaparelli EDM separating on Sunday | Image: ESA/ATG medialab

It’s been seven months since phase one of the ExoMars mission launched atop a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and today, they arrived.

Unfortunately, all does not appear to have gone to plan, and right now it seems that America remains the only country to have successfully landed an operational probe on Mars.

The Schiaparelli EDM (Entry, Descent, and landing Module) was intended as a testbed for phase II of the ExoMars mission, with a heat shield, parachutes, and retropropulsion rockets to slow and land the craft. It was not originally built to communicate directly with Earth, though there had been some hope that using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in India, ESA would be able to hear the faint sound of Schiaparelli directly. Instead, they were forced to wait for Mars Express — the still-operational, orbital part of the mission that included the failed Beagle 2 lander — to shunt the signals home to Earth as originally planned. Using the Indian telescope, they were able to track Schiaparelli as it was landing, confirming key points in the landing process like parachute deployment and rocket firing, but not operation after landing.

Hopes for a successful landing were raised when the file from Mars Express was the expected size but those hopes seem to have evaporated as the data were further analyzed. The team is now awaiting a final pass by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in a couple of hours to give it one more chance to call home.

On the other hand, the other half of ExoMars phase I, the Trace-Gas Orbiter or TGO, seems to have successfully reduced its speed with a rocket to slow it from 12,000km/h down to about 5000km/h, and entered into orbit and begin its mission to map the Martian atmosphere — especially looking for methane, which (like CO2) can contain isotopic markers that would suggest whether it’s more likely to be biological or geological in origin. The capture still needs to be confirmed, but things are looking really good right now.

In addition to serving as a telecommunication relay with Mars until at least 2022, it has four scientific instruments, two made by Russia (ACS and FREND), one by Belgium (NOMAD), and one by Switzerland (CaSSIS):

  • The Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS) and Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery (NOMAD) will capture infrared and ultraviolet light from the sun as it shines through the atmosphere at the orbiter’s “sunrise” and “sunset” to analyze the composition of the atmosphere
  • The Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) is a binocular camera that will stare down at the planet’s surface as it orbits and make a detailed topographical map of the surface, which will prove helpful in picking a landing site for ExoMars’s phase II lander, and
  • The Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND) will also stare at the ground, but will be trying to detect hydrogen (in whatever form — water or hydrated minerals) in the top meter of the Martian surface.

With all these, the TGO should provide invaluable data for future missions to the red planet.

So congratulations to ESA and Roscosmos on the TGO’s arrival at Mars, and probable condolences on the Schiaparelli lander — maybe Elon Musk will have better luck. I’ll update when we have confirmation.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.