Best Photos Yet of the Mars Lander’s Demise

A closeup of the dark, approximately circular crater about 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter marking the crash of the Schiaparelli test lander on Mars. The photo was taken on October 25 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Lander (MRO). Credit:
A closeup of the dark, approximately circular crater about 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter that marks the crash of the Schiaparelli test lander on Mars. The new, higher-resolution photo was taken on October 25 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Lander (MRO). A hint of an upraised rim is visible along the crater’s lower left side. The tiny white specks may be pieces of the lander that broke away on impact. The odd dark curving line has yet to be explained.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the most powerful telescope for observing Mars? A telephoto lens on the HiRise camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that can resolve features as small as 3 feet (1-meter) across. NASA used that camera to provide new details of the scene near the Martian equator where Europe’s Schiaparelli test lander crashed to the surface last week.

The Schiaparelli test lander was protected by its heat shield as it descended through the Martian atmosphere at high speed. Credit: ESA
The Schiaparelli test lander was protected by its heat shield as it descended through the Martian atmosphere at high speed. Credit: ESA

During an October 25 imaging run HiRise photographed three locations where hardware from the lander hit the ground all within about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) of each other. The dark crater in the photo above is what you’d expect if a 660-pound object (lander) slammed into dry soil at more than 180 miles an hour (300 km/h). The crater’s about a foot and a half (half a meter) deep and haloed by dark rays of fresh Martian soil excavated by the impact.

But what about that long dark arc northeast of the crater?  Could it have been created by a piece of hardware jettisoned when Schiaparelli’s propellant tank exploded? The rays are curious too. The European Space Agency says that the lander fell almost vertically when the thrusters cut out, yet the asymmetrical nature of the streaks — much longer to the west than east — would seem to indicate an oblique impact. It’s possible, according to the agency, that the hydrazine propellant tanks in the module exploded preferentially in one direction upon impact, throwing debris from the planet’s surface in the direction of the blast, but more analysis is needed. Additional white pixels in the image could be lander pieces or just noise.

This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event and our highest resolution of the scene to date. Annotations by the author. Click for a full-resolution image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event and our highest resolution of the scene to date. Click for a full-resolution image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the wider shot, several other pieces of lander-related flotsam are visible. About 0.8 mile (1.4 km) eastward, you can see the tiny crater dug out when the heat shield smacked the ground. Several bright spots might be pieces of its shiny insulation. About 0.6 mile (0.9 kilometer) south of the lander impact site, two features side-by-side are thought to be the spacecraft’s parachute and the back shell.  NASA plans additional images to be taken from different angle to help better interpret what we see.

The last happy scene for the lander when it still dangled from its chute before dropping and slamming into the surface. Credit: ESA
Schiaparelli dangles from its parachute in this artist’s view. A software error caused the chute to deploy too soon. Credit: ESA

The test lander is part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2016 mission, which placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars on Oct. 19. The orbiter will investigate the atmosphere and surface of Mars in search of organic molecules and provide relay communications capability for landers and rovers on Mars. Science studies won’t begin until the spacecraft trims its orbit to a 248-mile-high circle through aerobraking, which is expected to take about 13 months.

Everything started out well with Schiaparelli, which successfully transmitted data back to Earth during its descent through the atmosphere, the reason we know that the heat shield separated and the parachute deployed as planned. Unfortunately, the chute and its protective back shell ejected ahead of time followed by a premature firing of the thrusters. And instead of burning for the planned 30 seconds, the rockets shut off after only 3. Why? Scientists believe a software error told the lander it was much closer to the ground than it really was, tripping the final landing sequence too early.

Landing on Mars has never been easy. We’ve done flybys, attempted to orbit the planet or land on its surface 44 times. 15 of those have been landing attempts, with 7 successes: Vikings 1 and 2, Mars Pathfinder, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Phoenix Lander and Curiosity rover. We’ll be generous and call it 8 if you count the 1971 landing of Mars 3 by the then-Soviet Union. It reached the surface safely but shut down after just 20 seconds.

Mars can be harsh, but it forces us to get smart.

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Schiaparelli is Gone. Smashed on the surface of Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Schiaparelli landing site before and after the lander arrived. The images have a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year. The black dot appears to be the lander impact site and the smaller white dot below the paw-shaped cluster of craters, the parachute. Credit: NASA
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Schiaparelli landing site before and after the lander arrived. The images have a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year. The black dot appears to be the lander impact site and the smaller white dot below the paw-shaped cluster of craters, the parachute. Credit: NASA

Instead of a controlled descent to the surface using its thrusters, ESA’s Schiaparelli lander hit the ground hard and may very well have exploded on impact.  NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter then-and-now photos of the landing site have identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed connected to the ill-fated lander.

Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. EDT (14:42 GMT) on October 19 and began a 6-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown seconds after the parachute and back cover were discarded. One day later, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took photos of the expected touchdown site as part of a planned imaging run.

The landing site is shown within the Schiaparelli landing ellipse (top) along with before and after images below. Copyright Main image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Arizona State University; inserts: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The landing site is shown within the Schiaparelli landing ellipse (top) along with before and after images below. Copyright Main image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Arizona State University; inserts: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

One of the features is bright and can be associated with the 39-foot-wide (12-meter) diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli’s descent. The parachute and the associated back shield were released from Schiaparelli prior to the final phase, during which its nine thrusters should have slowed it to a standstill just above the surface.

The other new feature is a fuzzy dark patch or crater roughly 50 x 130 feet (15 x 40 meters) across and about 0.6 miles (1 km) north of the parachute. It’s believed to be the impact crater created by the Schiaparelli module following a much longer free fall than planned after the thrusters were switched off prematurely.

Artist's concept of Schiaparelli deploying its parachute. The parachute may also have played a role in the crash. It may have deployed too soon, causing the thrusters to fire up too soon and run out of fuel. Or the thrusters may have simply cut out after firing. Credit: ESA
Artist’s concept of Schiaparelli deploying its parachute. The parachute may also have played a role in the crash. It may have deployed too soon, causing the thrusters to fire too soon. The thrusters may also have simply cut out too soon after firing. Credit: ESA

Mission control estimates that Schiaparelli dropped from between 1.2 and 2.5 miles (2 and 4 km) altitude, striking the Martian surface at more than 186 miles an hour (300 km/h). The dark spot is either disturbed surface material or it could also be due to the lander exploding on impact, since its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. ESA cautions that these findings are still preliminary.

Something went wrong with Schiaparelli's one or more sets of thrusters during the descent. Credit: ESA
Something went wrong with Schiaparelli’s one or more sets of thrusters during the descent, causing the lander to crash on the surface at high speed. Credit: ESA

Since the module’s descent trajectory was observed from three different locations, the teams are confident that they will be able to reconstruct the chain of events with great accuracy. Exactly what happened to cause the thrusters to shut down prematurely isn’t yet known.

Europe’s Orbiter is Safely at Mars, but No Word from the Lander

Schiaparelli on Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
This artist’s view shows the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander on Mars. It’s unclear whether the landing was successful. Signals were received during its descent but then suddenly cut off. Mission control is working on the data now and will have an update on the status of the probe tomorrow morning Oct. 20. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Good news and bad news.  First the good. After a seven-month and 300 million mile (483 million km) journey, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully achieved orbit around Mars today. A signal spike appeared out of the noise about 12:35 p.m. EDT to great applause and high-fives at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.

Hugs in the control room when the signal from the Trace Gas Orbiter was received this morning, signaling that the spacecraft had achieved orbit around Mars. Credit: ESA Livestream
Joy in the control room when the signal from the Trace Gas Orbiter was received this morning, signaling that the spacecraft had achieved orbit around Mars. Credit: ESA Livestream

Two hours later, news of the lander arrived. Not so good but to be fair, it’s still too early to tell. Schiaparelli broadcast a signal during its descent to the Red Planet that was received here on Earth and by the orbiting Mars Express. All well and good. But then mid-transmission, the signal cut out.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, called the news “not good signs” but promised that his team would be analyzing the data through the night to determine the status of the lander. Their findings will be shared around mid-morning Friday Central European Time (around 5 a.m. EDT).

Three days ago, Schiaparelli separated from the orbiter and began a three-day coast to Mars. It entered the atmosphere today at an altitude of 76 miles (122 km) and speed of 13,049 mph (21,000 km/hr), protected from the hellish heat of re-entry by an aerodynamic heat shield.

Simulated sequence of the 15 images that the descent camera Schiaparelli module should have taken during its descent to Mars this morning. In the simulated images shown here, the first was made from 3 km up. The camera took images every 1.5 seconds with the final image in this at ~1.5 km. Depending on Schiaparelli’s actual descent speed, the final image may have been snapped closer to the surface. The views were generated from images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the center of Schiaparelli's landing ellipse, and represent the views expected at each altitude. Copyright spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; simulated views based on NASA MRO/CTX images (credit: NASA/JPL/MRO); landing ellipse background image: Mars Odyssey; simulation: ESA
Simulated sequence of the 15 images that the descent camera Schiaparelli module should have taken during its descent to Mars this morning. In the simulated images shown here, the first was made from 3 km up. The camera had planned to take images every 1.5 seconds with the final image in this at ~1.5 km. Depending on Schiaparelli’s actual descent speed, the final image may have been snapped closer to the surface. The views were generated from images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the center of Schiaparelli’s landing ellipse, and represent the views expected at each altitude. Copyright spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; simulated views from NASA images (credit: NASA/JPL/MRO); landing ellipse background image: Mars Odyssey; simulation: ESA

If all went well, at 6.8 miles (11 km) altitude, it would have deployed its parachute and moments later, dropped the heat shield. At 0.7 miles (1.2 km) above the surface, the lander would have jettisoned the chute and rear protective cover and fired its nine retrorockets while plummeting to the surface at 155 mph (255 mph). 29 seconds later, the thrusters would have shut off with Schiaparelli dropping the remaining 6.5 feet (2 meters) to the ground. Total elapsed time: just under 6 minutes.

For now, have hope. Given that Schiaparelli was primarily a test of landing technologies for future Mars missions, whatever happened, everything we learn from this unexpected turn of events will be invaluable. You can continue to follow updates on ESA’s Livestream.

** Update Oct. 20: It appears that the thrusters on Schiaparelli may have cut out too soon, causing the lander to drop from a higher altitude. In addition, the ejection of the parachute and back heat shield may have happened earlier than expected.

This from ESA:

“The data have been partially analyzed and confirm that the entry and descent stages occurred as expected, with events diverging from what was expected after the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute. This ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete.

The thrusters were confirmed to have been briefly activated although it seems likely that they switched off sooner than expected, at an altitude that is still to be determined.”

We Land on Mars in Just 2 days!


Watch how Schiaparelli will land on Mars. Touchdown will occur at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT) Wednesday Oct. 19.

Cross your fingers for good weather on the Red Planet on October 19. That’s the day the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander pops open its parachute, fires nine, liquid-fueled thrusters and descends to the surface of Mars. Assuming fair weather, the lander should settle down safely on the wide-open plains of Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator northwest of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The region is rich in hematite, an iron-rich mineral associated with hot springs here on Earth.

On 19 October 2016, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, known as Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in a region known as Meridiani Planum. The landing sites of the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there are indicated on this map. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars, based on data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument, on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.
On Wednesday, October 19, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in Meridiani Planum not far from the Opportunity rover. The map shows the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars created using data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

The 8-foot-wide probe will be released three days earlier from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and coast toward Mars before entering its atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 km/hr). During the 6-minute-long descent, Schiaparelli will decelerate gradually using the atmosphere to brake its speed, a technique called aerobraking. Not only is Meridiani Planum flat, it’s low, which means the atmosphere is thick enough to allow Schiaparelli’s heat shield to reduce its speed sufficiently so the chute can be safely deployed. The final firing of its thrusters will ensure a soft and controlled landing.

Artist's impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression showing Schiaparelli separating from the Trace Gas Orbiter and heading for Mars. The lander is named for late 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who created a detailed telescopic map of Mars. The orbiter will sniff out potentially biological gases such as methane in Mars’ atmosphere and track its sources and seasonal variations. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The lander is one-half of the ExoMars 2016 mission, a joint venture between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will fire its thrusters to place itself in orbit about the Red Planet the same day Schiparelli lands. Its job is to inventory the atmosphere in search of organic molecules, methane in particular. Plumes of methane, which may be biological or geological (or both) in origin, have recently been detected at several locations on Mars including Syrtis Major, the planet’s most prominent dark marking. The orbiter will hopefully pinpoint the source(s) as well as study seasonal changes in locations and concentrations.

This image, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. It shows a flat plain, part of the Elysium Planitia, that is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA's Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
This image, taken by ESA’s Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. Located in Elysium Planitia, the flat plain is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Methane (CH4) has long been associated with life here on Earth. More than 90% of the colorless, odorless gas is produced by living organisms, primarily bacteria. Sunlight breaks methane down into other gases over a span of about 300 years. Because the gas relatively short-lived, seeing it on Mars implies an active, current source. There may be several:

  • Long-extinct bacteria that released methane that became trapped in ice or minerals in the upper crust. Changing temperature and pressure could stress the ice and release that ancient gas into today’s atmosphere.
  • Bacteria that are actively producing methane to this day.
  • Abiological sources. Iron can combine with oxygen in terrestrial hot springs and volcanoes to create methane. This gas can also become trapped in solid forms of water or ‘cages’ called clathrate hydrates that can preserve it for a long time. Olivine, a common mineral on Earth and Mars, can react with water under the right conditions to form another mineral called serpentine. When altered by heat, water and pressure, such in environments such as hydrothermal springs, serpentine can produce methane.

Will it turn out to be burping bacteria or mineral processes? Let’s hope TGO can point the way.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan
This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

The Trace Gas Orbiter will also use the Martian atmosphere to slow its speed and trim its orbital loop into a 248-mile-high (400 km) circle suitable for science observations. But don’t expect much in the way of scientific results right away; aerobraking maneuvers will take about a year, so TGO’s job of teasing out atmospheric ingredients won’t begin until December 2017. The study runs for 5 years.

The orbiter will also examine Martian water vapor, nitrogen oxides and other organics with far greater accuracy than any previous probe as well as monitor seasonal changes in the atmosphere’s composition and temperature. And get this — its instruments can map subsurface hydrogen, a key ingredient in both water and methane, down to a depth of a meter (39.4 inches) with greater resolution compared to previous studies. Who knows? We may discover hidden ice deposits or methane sinks that could influence where future rovers will land. Additional missions to Mars are already on the docket, including ExoMars 2020. More about that in a minute.

Schiaparelli, the
This artist’s view shows Schiaparelli, the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, using its thrusters to make a soft landing on Mars on October 19 at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

While TGO’s mission will require years, the lander is expected to survive for only four Martian days (called ‘sols’) by using the excess energy capacity of its batteries. A set of scientific sensors will measure wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure and electric fields on the surface. A descent camera will take pictures of the landing site on the way down; we’ll should see those photos the very next day. Data and imagery from the lander will be transmitted to ESA’s Mars Express and a NASA Relay Orbiter, then relayed to Earth.


This animation shows the paths of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander on Oct. 19 when they arrive at Mars.

If you’re wondering why the lander’s mission is so brief, it’s because Schiaparelli is essentially a test vehicle. Its primary purpose is to test technologies for landing on Mars including the special materials used for protection against the heat of entry, a parachute system, a Doppler radar device for measuring altitude and liquid-fueled braking thrusters.

Martian dust storms can be cause for concern during any landing attempt. Since it’s now autumn in the planet’s northern hemisphere, a time when storms are common, there’s been some finger-nail biting of late. The good news is that storms of recent weeks have calmed and Mars has entered a welcome quiet spell.

To watch events unfold in real time, check out ESA’s live stream channel, Facebook page and Twitter updates. The announcement of the separation of the lander from the orbiter will be made around 11 a.m. Eastern Time (15:00 GMT) Sunday October 16.  Live coverage of the Trace Gas Orbiter arrival and Schiaparelli landing on Mars runs from 9-11:15 a.m. Eastern (13:00-15:15 GMT) on Wednesday October 19. Photos taken by Schiaparelli’s descent camera will be available starting at 4 a.m. Eastern (8:00 GMT) on October 20. More details here. We’ll also keep you updated on Universe Today.

The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA
The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA

Everything we learn during the current mission will be applied to planning and executing the next —  ExoMars 2020, slated to launch in 2020. That venture will send a rover to the surface to search and chemically test for signs of life, present or past.  It will collect samples with a drill at various depths and analyze the fines for bio-molecules. Getting down deep is important because the planet’s thin atmosphere lets through harsh UV light from the sun, sterilizing the surface.

Are you ready for adventure? See you on Mars (vicariously)!

Spectacular Panoramas from Curiosity Reveal Layered Martian Rock Formations Like America’s Desert Southwest

Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The most stunning panoramic vistas likely ever snapped by NASA’s Curiosity rover reveal spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes. They were just captured a week ago and look like a scene straight out of the hugely popular science fiction movie ‘The Martian’ – only they are real !!

Indeed several magnificent panoramas were taken by Curiosity in just the past week and you can see our newly stitched mosaic versions of several – above and below.

The rock formations lie in the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp where Curiosity has been exploring for roughly the past month. She just finished a campaign of detailed science observations and is set to bore a new sampling hole into the Red Planet, as you read this.

While scouting around the “Murray Buttes,” the SUV sized rover captured thousands of color and black and white raw images to document the geology of this thus far most unrivaled spot on the Red Planet ever visited by an emissary from Earth.

So the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic views starting with images gathered by the high resolution mast mounted Mastcam right color camera, or M-100, on Sept, 8, 2016, or Sol 1454 of the robots operations on Mars.

Dramatic closeup mosaic view of hilly outcrop with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding  in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic closeup mosaic view of Martian butte with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The mosaics give context and show us exactly what the incredible alien surroundings look like where the six wheeled rover is exploring today.

The imagery of the Murray Buttes and mesas show them to be eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.

Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides  and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic shows lower region of Mount Sharp at center in between spectacular sloping hillsides and layered rock outcrops of the Murray Buttes region in Gale Crater as imaged by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1451, Sept. 5, 2016 with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Scanning around the Murray Buttes mosaics one sees finely layered rocks, sloping hillsides, the distant rim of Gale Crater barely visible through the dusty haze, dramatic hillside outcrops with sandstone layers exhibiting cross-bedding. The presence of “cross-bedding” indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes, says the team.

Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Wide angle mosaic view shows spectacular buttes and layered sandstone in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mastcam cameras on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1455, Sept. 9, 2016 and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

But there is no time to rest as she was commanded to head further south to the last of these Murray Buttes. And right now the team is implementing a plan for Curiosity to drill a new hole in Mars today – at a target named “Quela” at the base of the last of the buttes. The rover approached the butte from the south side a few days ago to get in place and plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.

“It’s always an exciting day on Mars when you prepare to drill another sample – an engineering feat that we’ve become so accustomed to that I sometimes forget how impressive this really is!” wrote Lauren Edgar, in a mission update today. Edgar is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Curiosity will then continue further south to begin exploring higher and higher sedimentary layers up Mount Sharp. The “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Dramatic closeup view of hillside outcrop with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding  in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic closeup view of hillside outcrop with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Meanwhile Curiosity is still conducting science observations of the last drill sample gathered from the “Marimba” target in August focusing on MAHLI and APXS examination of the dump pile leftovers from the sieved sample. She just completed chemical analysis of the sieved sample using the miniaturized SAM and CheMin internal chemistry laboratories.

It’s interesting to note that although the buttes are striking, their height also presents communications issues by blocking radio signals with NASA’s orbiting relay satellites. NASA’s Opportunity rover faced the same issues earlier this year while exploring inside the high walled Marathon Valley along Ecdeavour Crater.

“While the buttes are beautiful, they pose a challenge to communications, because they are partially occluding communications between the rover and the satellites we use to relay data (MRO and ODY), so sometimes the data volume that we can relay is pretty low” wrote Edgar.

“But it’s a small price to pay for the great stratigraphic exposures and gorgeous view!”

Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dramatic hillside view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched and cropped from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016, with added artificial sky. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1461, September 15, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 353,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater.  Note rover wheel tracks at left.  She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.   Credit:   NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Curiosity rover panorama of Mount Sharp captured on June 6, 2014 (Sol 651) during traverse inside Gale Crater. Note rover wheel tracks at left. She will eventually ascend the mountain at the ‘Murray Buttes’ at right later this year. Assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images and stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Curiosity Rover Captures Full-Circle Panorama of Enticing ‘Murray Buttes’ on Mars

This 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called "Murray Buttes" on lower Mount Sharp.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Four years after a nail biting touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA’s SUV-sized Curiosity rover is at last nearing the long strived for “Murray Buttes” formation on the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.

This is a key milestone for the Curiosity mission because the “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

The area features eroded mesas and buttes that are reminiscent of the U.S. Southwest.

So the team directed the rover to capture a 360-degree color panorama using the robots mast mounted Mastcam camera earlier this month on Aug. 5.

The full panorama shown above combines more than 130 images taken by Curiosity on Aug. 5, 2016, during the afternoon of Sol 1421 by the Mastcam’s left-eye camera.

In particular note the dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm. It stands about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

Coincidentally, Aug. 5 also marks the fourth anniversary of the six wheeled rovers landing on the Red Planet via the unprecedented Sky Crane maneuver.

You can explore this spectacular Mars panorama in great detail via this specially produced 360-degree panorama from JPL. Simply move the magnificent view back and forth and up and down and all around with your mouse or mobile device.

Video Caption: This 360-degree panorama was acquired on Aug. 5, 2016, by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. The dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm is about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

“The buttes and mesas are capped with rock that is relatively resistant to wind erosion. This helps preserve these monumental remnants of a layer that formerly more fully covered the underlying layer that the rover is now driving on,” say rover scientists.

“The relatively flat foreground is part of a geological layer called the Murray formation, which formed from lakebed mud deposits. The buttes and mesas rising above this surface are eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed. Curiosity closely examined that layer — the Stimson formation — during the first half of 2016 while crossing a feature called “Naukluft Plateau” between two exposures of the Murray formation.”

Three years ago, the team informally named the site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1447, August 31, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing, and taken over 348,500 amazing images.

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 - backdropped by Mount Sharp.  Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune.  This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 – backdropped by Mount Sharp. Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune. This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ExoMars 2018 Rover Postponed to 2020 Launch

ESA Exomars rover launch has been rescheduled to launch two years later in 2020.  Credit:ESA
ESA Exomars rover launch has been rescheduled to launch two years later in 2020. Credit:ESA

Liftoff of the ExoMars 2018 rover mission currently under development jointly by Europe and Russia has just been postponed for two years to 2020, according to an announcement today, May 2, from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

The delay was forced by a variety of technical and funding issues that ate up the schedule margin to enable a successful outcome for what will be Europe’s first Mars rover. The goal is to search for signs of life.

“Taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution,” ESA explained in a statement today.

The ambitious ExoMars rover is the second of two joint Euro-Russian missions to explore the Red Planet. It is equipped with an ESA deep driller and a NASA instrument to search for preserved organic molecules.

The first mission known as ExoMars 2016 was successfully launched last month from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton-M rocket on March 14.

The renamed ExoMars 2020 mission involves a European-led rover and a Russian-led surface platform and is also slated to blastoff on an Russian Proton rocket.

Roscosmos and ESA jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020. The costs associated with the delay are not known.

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The delay means that the Euro-Russian rover mission will launch the same year as NASA’s 2020 rover.

The rover is being built by prime contractor Airbus Defense and Space in Stevenage, England.

The descent module and surface science package are provided by Roscosmos with some contributions by ESA.

Recognizing the potential for a delay, ESA and Roscosmos set up a tiger team in late 2015 to assess the best options.

“Russian and European experts made their best efforts to meet the 2018 launch schedule for the mission, and in late 2015, a dedicated ESA-Roscosmos Tiger Team, also including Russian and European industries, initiated an analysis of all possible solutions to recover schedule delays and accommodate schedule contingencies,” said ESA in the statement.

The tiger team reported their results to ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner and Roscosmos Director General Igor Komarov.

Woerner and Komarov then “jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020, and tasked their project teams to develop, in cooperation with the industrial contactors, a new baseline schedule aiming towards a 2020 launch. Additional measures will also be taken to maintain close control over the activities on both sides up to launch.”

The ExoMars 2016 interplanetary mission is comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander. The spacecraft are due to arrive at Mars in October 2016.

The ExoMars craft releases the Schiaparelli lander in October in this artist's view. Credit: ESA
The ExoMars craft releases the Schiaparelli lander in October in this artist’s view. Credit: ESA

The goal of TGO is to search for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.

The now planned 2020 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 (seven feet) 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.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2020 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.

ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ExoMars Takes First Hi-Res Image With The Lens Cap On

The first image from the ExoMars craft. Behold the glory of space! Image: ESA/Roscosmos

It doesn’t exactly qualify as eye candy, but the first image from the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars spacecraft is beautiful to behold in its own way. For most of us, a picture like this would mean something went horribly wrong with our camera. But as the first image from the spacecraft, it tells us that the camera and its pointing system are functioning properly.

ExoMars is a joint project between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s an ambitious project, and consists of 2 separate launches. On March 14, 2016, the first launch took place, consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the stationary test lander called Schiaparelli, which will be delivered by the Martian surface by the TGO.

TGO will investigate methane sources on Mars, and act as a communications satellite for the lander. The test lander is trying out new landing technologies, which will help with the second launch, in 2020, when a mobile rover will be launched and landed on the Martian surface.

So far, all systems are go on the ExoMars craft during its voyage. “All systems have been activated and checked out, including power, communications, startrackers, guidance and navigation, all payloads and Schiaparelli, while the flight control team have become more comfortable operating this new and sophisticated spacecraft,” says Peter Schmitz, ESA’s Spacecraft Operations Manager.

Three days prior to reaching Mars, the Schiaparelli lander will separate from the TGO and begin its descent to the Martian surface. Though Schiaparelli is mostly designed to gather information about its descent and landing, it still will do some science. It has a small payload of instrument which will function for 2-8 days on the surface, studying the environment and returning the results to Earth.

The TGO will perform its own set of maneuvers, inserting itself into an elliptical orbit around Mars and then spending a year aero-braking in the Martian atmosphere. After that, the TGO will settle into a circular orbit about 400 km above the surface of Mars.

The TGO is hunting for methane, which is a chemical signature for life. It will also be studying the surface features of Mars.

ExoMars Mission Narrowly Avoids Exploding Booster

At least nine moving objects, all thought to be related to a possible explosion of the Breeze-M upper stage after separation from the ExoMars spacecraft, move across the sky in this animation. ExoMars is further ahead and outside the frame. Credit and copyright: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva / ESA
At least nine moving objects, all thought to be related to a possible explosion of the Breeze-M upper stage after separation from the ExoMars spacecraft, move across the sky in this animation made late on March 14. ExoMars is further ahead and outside the frame. Credit and copyright: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva / ESA

On March 14, the ExoMars mission successfully lifted off on a 7-month journey to the planet Mars but not without a little surprise. The Breeze-M upper booster stage, designed to give the craft its final kick toward Mars, exploded shortly after parting from the probe. Thankfully, it wasn’t close enough to damage the spacecraft.

Michel Denis, ExoMars flight director at the European Space Operations, Center in Darmstadt, Germany, said that the two craft were many kilometers apart at the time of the breakup, so the explosion wouldn’t have posed a risk. Still, the mission team won’t be 100% certain until all the science instruments are completely checked over in the coming weeks.

All went well during the takeoff and final separation of the probe, but then something odd happened. Breeze-M was supposed to separate cleanly into two pieces — the main body and a detachable fuel tank — and maneuver itself to a graveyard or “junk” orbit, where rockets and spacecraft are placed at the end of their useful lives, so they don’t cause trouble with operational satellites.

But instead of two pieces, tracking photos taken at the OASI Observatory in Brazil not long after the stage and probe separated show  a cloud of debris, suggesting an explosion occurred that shattered the booster to pieces. There’s more to consider. Space probes intended to either land or be crashed into planets have to pass through strict sterilization procedures that rocket boosters aren’t subject to. Assuming the Breeze-M shrapnel didn’t make it to its graveyard orbit, there exists the possibility some of it might be heading for Mars. If any earthly bugs inhabit the remains, it could potentially lead to unwanted consequences on Mars.

And this isn’t the first time a Russian Breeze-M has blown up.

According to Russian space observer Anatoly Zak in a recent article in Popular Mechanics, a Breeze-M that delivered a Russian spy satellite into orbit last December exploded on January 16. Propellant in one of its fuel tanks may not have been properly vented into space; heated by the sun, the tank’s contents likely combusted and ripped the stage apart. A similar incident occurred in October 2012.

The ExoMars craft releases the Schiaparelli lander in October in this artist's view. Credit: ESA
Artist view of the ExoMars craft releasing the Schiaparelli lander in October. Credit: ESA

For now, we’ll embrace the good news that the spacecraft, which houses the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, are underway to Mars and in good health.

ExoMars is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). One of the mission’s key goals is to follow up on the methane detection made by ESA’s Mars Express probe in 2004 to understand where the gas comes from. Mars’ atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide with the remaining 5% divided among nitrogen, argon, oxygen and others including small amounts of methane, a gas that on Earth is produced largely by living creatures.

NASA researchers using telescopes right here on Earth also detected multiple methane plumes coming from the surface on Mars in 2003. Credit: Trent Schindler/NASA
NASA researchers using telescopes right here on Earth also detected multiple methane plumes coming from the surface on Mars in 2003. Credit: Trent Schindler/NASA

Scientists want to know how martian methane got into the atmosphere. Was it produced by biology or geology? Methane, unless it is continuously produced by a source, only survives in the Martian atmosphere for a few hundreds of years because it quickly breaks down to form water and carbon dioxide. Something is refilling the atmosphere with methane but what?

TGO will also look at potential sources of other trace gases such as volcanoes and map the planet’s surface. It can also detect buried water-ice deposits, which, along with locations identified as sources of the trace gases, could influence the choice of landing sites of future missions.

The orbiter will also act as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission — a rover and stationary surface science platform scheduled for launch in May 2018 and arriving in early 2019.

Schiaparelli will demonstrate the capability of ESA and European industry to perform a controlled landing on the surface of Mars. Credit: ESA
Schiaparelli will demonstrate the capability of ESA and European industry to perform a controlled landing on the surface of Mars. It will also gather data on Mars’ atmosphere. Credit: ESA

On October 16, when the spacecraft is still 559,000 miles (900,000 kilometers) from the Red Planet, the Schiaparelli lander will separate from the orbiter and three days later parachute down to the Martian surface. The orbiter will take measurements of the planet’s atmosphere (including methane) as well as any atmospheric electrical fields.

Clouds gather over Mars' Hellas Basin in this photo taken March 23. The Red Planet has intrigued humankind for centuries. Credit: Anthony Wesley
Clouds gather over Mars’ Hellas Basin in this photo taken March 23. The Red Planet has intrigued humankind for centuries. Credit: Anthony Wesley

Mars is a popular place. There are currently five active orbiters there: two European (Mars Express and Mars Odyssey), two American (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN), one Indian (Mars Orbiter Mission) and two rovers (Opportunity and Curiosity) with another lander and orbiter en route!

Bold Euro-Russian Expedition Blasts Free of Earth En Route to Mars in Search of Life’s Indicators

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze M fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze M fourth stage after launch atop Proton rocket on March 14, 2016. Credit: ESA

The cooperative Euro-Russian ExoMars 2016 expedition is now en route to the Red Planet after successfully firing its upper stage booster one final time on Monday evening, March 15, to blast free of the Earth’s gravitational tug and begin a 500 million kilometer interplanetary journey in a bold search of indications of life emanating from potential Martian microbes.

The vehicle is in “good health” with the solar panels unfurled, generating power and on course for the 500 Million kilometer (300 million mile) journey to Mars.

“Acquisition of signal confirmed. We have a mission to Mars!” announced Mission Control from the European Space Agency.

The joint European/Russian ExoMars spacecraft successfully blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton-M rocket at 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday, March 14, with the goal of searching for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.

Video caption: Blastoff of Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying ExoMars 2016 mission on March 14, 2016. Credit: Roscosmos

The first three stages of the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Russian-built rocket fired as scheduled over the first ten minutes and lofted the 9,550-pound (4,332-kilogram) ExoMars to orbit.

Three more firings from the Breeze-M fourth stage quickly raised the probe into progressively higher temporary parking orbits around Earth.

But the science and engineering teams from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos had to keep their fingers crossed and endure an agonizingly long wait of more than 10 hours before the fourth and final ignition of the Proton’s Breeze-M upper stage required to break the bonds of Earth.

The do or die last Breeze-M upper stage burn with ExoMars still attached was finally fired exactly as planned.

The probe was released at last from the Breeze at 20:13 GMT.

However, it took another long hour to corroborate the missions true success until the first acquisition of signal (AOS) from the spacecraft was received at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany via the Malindi ground tracking station in Africa at 5:21:29 p.m. EST (21:29 GMT), confirming a fully successful launch with the spacecraft in good health.

It was propelled outwards to begin a seven-month-long journey to the Red Planet to the great relief of everyone involved from ESA, Roscosmos and other nations participating. An upper stage failure caused the total loss of Russia’s prior mission to Mars; Phobos-Grunt.

“Only the process of collaboration produces the best technical solutions for great research results. Roscosmos and ESA are confident of the mission’s success,” said Igor Komarov, General Director of the Roscosmos State Space Corporation, in a statement.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a joined pair of European-built spacecraft consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, built and funded by ESA.

“It’s been a long journey getting the first ExoMars mission to the launch pad, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of our international teams, a new era of Mars exploration is now within our reach,” says Johann-Dietrich Woerner, ESA’s Director General.

“I am grateful to our Russian partner, who have given this mission the best possible start today. Now we will explore Mars together.”

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

The cooperative mission includes significant participation from the Russian space agency Roscosmos who provided the Proton-M launcher, part of the science instrument package, the surface platform and ground station support.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander are speeding towards Mars joined together, on a collision course for the Red Planet. They will separate on October 16, 2016 at distance of 900,000 km from the planet, three days before arriving on October 19, 2016.
TGO will fire thrusters to alter course and enter an initial four-day elliptical orbit around the fourth planet from the sun ranging from 300 km at its perigee to 96 000 km at its apogee, or furthest point.

Over the next year, engineers will command TGO to fire thrusters and conduct a complex series of ‘aerobraking’ manoeuvres that will gradually lower the spacecraft to circular 400 km (250 mi) orbit above the surface.

The science mission to analyse for rare gases, including methane, in the thin Martian atmosphere at the nominal orbit is expected to begin in December 2017.

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:  ESA/ATG medialab
ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:
ESA/ATG medialab

As TGO enters orbit, the Schiaparelli lander will smash into the atmosphere and begin a harrowing six minute descent to the surface.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018 that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for perhaps four and up to eight days until the battery is depleted.

It will conduct a number of environmental science studies such as “obtaining the first measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that, combined with measurements of the concentration of atmospheric dust, will provide new insights into the role of electric forces on dust lifting – the trigger for dust storms,” according to ESA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer