Earth’s lone mission to the Red Planet this year has now been assembled into launch configuration and all preparations are currently on target to support blastoff from Baikonur at the opening of the launch window on March 14, 2016.
The ambitious ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).
The duo have now been assembled and mated by technicians into their final launch configuration, working in a clean room at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, for launch atop a Russian Proton rocket.
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“The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars,” says ESA.
After launch the pair will remain joined for the seven month long interplanetary journey to Mars until 16 October, at which time the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing (EDL) demonstrator module will separate from the orbiter.
Three days later on October 19, TGO is slated to enter Mars orbit and Schiaparelli will begin its plummet through the thin Martian atmosphere and hoped for soft landing.
The mating operations commenced on February 12 with the hydrazine fueled lander in a mounting platform surrounding the orbiter that “facilitates the activities that need to be done about 4 meters off the ground,” according to ESA officials.
Over the following days, technicians then completed all the critical connections between the two spacecraft and conducted function tests to insure that all systems were operating as expected.
Specialists from the Airbus Defence and Space team also bonded the final few thermal protection tiles onto Schiaparelli. Several spots remained open during the mating operation to allow for equipment hooks to latch on and maneuver the spacecraft. With those tasks done, technician can apply the finishing touches.
The launch window extends until March 25.
The ExoMars spacecraft will join ESA’s only other Red Planet probe – the Mars Express orbiter – which arrived in 2004 and continues to function well to this day.
The ExoMars 2016 orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.
The orbiter was built in Europe and the instruments are provided by European and Russian scientists.
Methane (CH4) gas is the simplest organic molecule and very low levels have reportedly been detected in the thin Martian atmosphere. But the data are not certain and its origin is not clear cut.
Methane could be a marker either for active living organisms today or it could originate from non life geologic processes. On Earth more than 90% of the methane originates from biological sources.
The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European landing technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission.
The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.