ExoMars Has Sent Back its First Images From Mars

On October 19th, 2016, the European Space Agency’s Exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) mission established orbit around Mars. Consisting of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, the purpose of this mission is to investigate Mars for past signs of life. And whereas the Schiaparelli unfortunately crashed during deployment, the TGO has managed to begin its mission ahead of schedule.

A few weeks ago, the satellite achieved a near circular orbit around Mars after performing a series of braking maneuvers. Since that time, the orbiter’s Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) took a stunning image of the surface. This picture was not only the TGO’s first image of Mars, it was also a test to see if the orbiter is ready to being its main mission on April 28th.

The image captured a 40 km- (25 mi) long segment of the Korolev Crater, which is located high in Mars’ northern hemisphere. The image was a composite of three images in different colors that were taken simultaneously on April 15th, 2018, which were then assembled to produce this color image. The bright material that appears at the edge of the crater is water ice.

The ExoMars Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, CaSSIS, captured this view of the rim of Korolev crater (73.3ºN/165.9ºE). Copyright ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

As Antoine Pommerol, a member of the CaSSIS science team working on the calibration of the data, explained in a recent ESA press release:

“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was given the lighting conditions. It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”

Prior to the test phase, the camera team transmitted new software to the TGO, and after a few minor issues, they determined that the instrument was ready to work. The camera is one of four instruments on the TGO, which also carries two spectrometer suites and a neutron detector. The spectrometers began their science mission on April 21st by taking the first sample of the atmosphere to see how its molecules absorb sunlight.

By doing this, the TGO hopes to determine the chemical composition of Mars atmosphere and find evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. Eventually, the camera will help characterize features on the surface that could be related to trace gas sources. Hence the importance of this recent test.

ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander seperating in orbit of Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

“We aim to fully automate the image production process,” said Nicolas Thomas, the camera’s principal investigator from the University of Bern. “Once we achieve this, we can distribute the data quickly to the science community for analysis.”

A lot of challenges lie ahead, which includes a long period of data collection to bring out the details of rare (or yet to be discovered) trace gases in Mars’ atmosphere. This is necessary since trace gases (as the name would suggest) are present in only very small amounts – i.e. less than 1% of the volume of the planet’s atmosphere. But as Håkan Svedhem – the ESA’s TGO project scientist – indicated, the test image was a good start.

“We are excited to finally be starting collecting data at Mars with this phenomenal spacecraft,” he said. “The test images we have seen so far certainly set the bar high.”

By 2020, the second part of the ExoMars mission is scheduled to launch. This will consist of a Russian surface platform and a European rover landing on the surface in support of a science mission that is expected to last into 2022 or longer. Alongside NASA’s proposed Mars 2020 rover, the Red Planet is due to have several more visitors in the coming years!

Further Reading: ESA

ESA’s ExoMars has Completed its Aerobraking Maneuvers to Bring it Into a Circular 400 km Orbit Around Mars

In March of 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission into space. A joint project between the ESA and Roscosmos, this two-part mission consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, both of which arrived in orbit around Mars in October of 2016. While Schiaparelli crashed while attempting to land, the TGO has gone on to accomplish some impressive feats.

For example, in March of 2017, the orbiter commenced a series of aerobraking maneuvers, where it started to lower its orbit to enter Mars’ thin atmosphere and slow itself down. According to Armelle Hubault, the Spacecraft Operations Engineer on the TGO flight control team, the ExoMars mission has made tremendous progress and is well on its way to establishing its final orbit around the Red Planet.

TGO’s mission has been to study the surface of Mars, characterize the distribution of water and chemicals beneath the surface, study the planet’s geological evolution, identify future landing sites, and to search for possible biosignatures of past Martian life. Once it has established its final orbit around Mars – 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface – the TGO will be ideally positioned to conduct these studies.

Visualization of the ExoMars mission’s Trace Gas Orbiter conducting aerobraking maneuvers to March of 2018. Credit: ESA

The ESA also released a graphic (shown above) demonstrating the successive orbits the TGO has made since it began aerobraking – and will continue to make until March of 2018. Whereas the red dot indicates the orbiter (and the blue line its current orbit), the grey lines show successive reductions in the TGO’s orbital period. The bold lines denote a reduction of 1 hour while the thin lines denote a reduction of 30 minutes.

Essentially, a single aerobraking maneuver consist of the orbiter passing into Mars’ upper atmosphere and relying on its solar arrays to generate tiny amounts of drag. Over time, this process slows the craft down and gradually lowers its orbit around Mars. As Armelle Hubault recently posted on the ESA’s rocket science blog:

“We started on the biggest orbit with an apocentre (the furthest distance from Mars during each orbit) of 33 200 km and an orbit of 24 hr in March 2017, but had to pause last summer due to Mars being in conjunction. We recommenced aerobraking in August 2017, and are on track to finish up in the final science orbit in mid-March 2018. As of today, 30 Jan 2018, we have slowed ExoMars TGO by 781.5 m/s. For comparison, this speed is more than twice as fast as the speed of a typical long-haul jet aircraft.”

Earlier this week, the orbiter passed through the point where it made its closest approach to the surface in its orbit (the pericenter passage, represented by the red line). During this approach, the craft dipped well into Mars’ uppermost atmosphere, which dragged the aircraft and slowed it down further. In its current elliptical orbit, it reaches a maximum distance of 2700 km (1677 mi) from Mars (it’s apocenter).

Visualization of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter aerobraking at Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Despite being a decades-old practice, aerobraking remains a significant technical challenge for mission teams. Every time a spacecraft passes through a planet’s atmosphere, its flight controllers need to make sure that its orientation is just right in order to slow down and ensure that the craft remains stable. If their calculations are off by even a little, the spacecraft could begin to spin out of control and veer off course. As Hubault explained:

“We have to adjust our pericentre height regularly, because on the one hand, the martian atmosphere varies in density (so sometimes we brake more and sometimes we brake less) and on the other hand, martian gravity is not the same everywhere (so sometimes the planet pulls us down and sometimes we drift out a bit). We try to stay at about 110 km altitude for optimum braking effect. To keep the spacecraft on track, we upload a new set of commands every day – so for us, for flight dynamics and for the ground station teams, it’s a very demanding time!”

The next step for the flight control team is to use the spacecraft’s thrusters to maneuver the spacecraft into its final orbit (represented by the green line on the diagram). At this point, the spacecraft will be in its final science and operation data relay orbit, where it will be in a roughly circular orbit about 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface of Mars. As Hubault wrote, the process of bringing the TGO into its final orbit remains a challenging one.

“The main challenge at the moment is that, since we never know in advance how much the spacecraft is going to be slowed during each pericentre passage, we also never know exactly when it is going to reestablish contact with our ground stations after pointing back to Earth,” she said. “We are working with a 20-min ‘window’ for acquisition of signal (AOS), when the ground station first catches TGO’s signal during any given station visibility, whereas normally for interplanetary missions we have a firm AOS time programmed in advance.”

Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Exomars 2020 rover, which is expected to land on the surface of Mars by the Spring of 2o21. Credit:ESA

With the spacecraft’s orbital period now shortened to less than 3 hours, the flight control team has to go through this exercise 8 times a day now. Once the TGO has reached its final orbit (by March of 2018), the orbiter will remain there until 2022, serving as a telecommunications relay satellite for future missions. One of its tasks will be to relay data from the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, which will consist of a European rover and a Russian surface platform being deployed the surface of Mars in the Spring of 2021.

Along with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, this rover/lander pair will be the latest in a long line of robotic missions looking to unlock the secrets of Mars past. In addition, these missions will conduct crucial investigations that will pave the way for eventual sample return missions to Earth, not to mention crewed to the surface!

Further Reading: ESA

Mars Missions Need To Be Neat Freaks At Key Sites

One of the most common features of space exploration has been the use of disposable components to get missions to where they are going. Whether we are talking about multistage rockets (which fall away as soon as they are spent) or the hardware used to achieve Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) onto a planet, the idea has been the same. Once the delivery mechanism is used up, it is cast away.

However, in so doing, we could be creating a hazardous situation for future missions. Such is the conclusion reached by a new study from the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki, Finland. With regard to the use of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) systems, the study’s author – Dr. Mark Paton – concludes that jettisoned hardware from missions to Mars could create a terrible mess near future landing sites.

Dr. Mark Paton is a planetary research scientist who specializes in the interaction between the Martian atmosphere and its surface. As such, he is well-versed in the subject of EDL systems that are designed to land missions on Solar System bodies that have atmospheres. This is certainly a going concern for Mars, where landers and rovers have relied on various means to get to the surface safely.

Consider the Curiosity rover, which used a separate EDL system – known as the Sky Crane – to land on Mars in 2012. As the first EDL system of its kind, the Sky Crane was a essentially a rocket-powered backpack mounted on top of the rover. This system kicked in after Curiosity separated from its Descent module (which was slowed by a parachute) and used rockets to slow the rover’s decent even further.

Once it was sufficiently close to the surface, the Sky Crane lowed the rover to the ground with tethers measuring 6.4 meters (21 ft) long. It then detached and landed a safe distance away, not far from the Descent module’s heat shield, backshell, and parachute landed. These jettisoned bits were all photographed from orbit by the MSL’s HiRISE instrument a day after the landing.

This system is also being planned for use by the Mars 2020 rover. And beyond rockets and parachutes, there are also advanced concepts like the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs). As part of NASA’s Fundamental Aerodynamics Hypersonics Project, the HIAD is an attempt to develop what are known as Inflatable Reentry Vehicle (IRV) systems which do away with heat shields.

Unfortunately, this kind of technology does not address another major concern – which is the accumulation of spent hardware components on the surface of a planet. In time, these could pose risks for future missions, mainly because they have the potential of being blown around and cluttering up other (and future) landing sites that are located not far away.

Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 with its sky crane landing system deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL

As Dr. Paton indicated in an interview with Seeker columnist (and Universe Today alumnist) Elizabeth Howell:

“Currently available landing systems, using heat shield and parachutes, might be problematic because jettisoned hardware from these landers normally land within a few hundred meters of the lander. I would imagine a sample return mission would not jettison its parachute in close vicinity of the target sample or the cached sample. The parachute might cover the sample, making its retrieval a problem. Landers using large parachutes or other large devices probably pose the greatest risk as these could be easily blown onto equipment on the surface, damaging or covering it.”

For the sake of his study, Dr. Paton relied on 3D computer modelling (using the space flight simulator Orbiter) to examine different types of ELD systems. He then conducted meteorological measurements to determine wind speeds and direction within the Martian Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL), in order to determine their influence on the distribution of jettisoned components across the surface of Mars.

What he found was that winds speeds within the Martian PBL were sufficient enough to blow around certain types of EDL systems. This included parachutes – a mainstay of space missions – as well as next-generations concepts like the HIAC. Basically, these components could be blown onto prelanded assets, even when the lander itself has touched down several kilometers away.

This could play havoc with robotic missions that have sensitive equipment or are attempting to collect samples for return to Earth. And as for crewed missions – such as NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars”, which is expected to take place in the 2030s – the results could be even worse. Crew habitats, which will be part of all future crewed missions, will rely on solar panels and other devices that need to be free of clutter in order to function.

Artist’s concept of the Deceleration module of Mars Science Laboratory in entering the Martian Atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As such, Dr. Paton advises that future missions be designed so that the amount of hardware they leave behind is minimized. In addition, he advises that any future missions will need to take into account meteorological measurement to make sure that jettisoned components are not likely to blow back and interfere with missions in progress.

“For new landing systems, a detailed trade-off analysis would be required to determine the best way to mitigate this problem,” he said. “To be sure that the wind is blowing away from any landed assets, the winds in the lower few kilometers of the atmosphere would ideally need to be measured close to the time of the lander’s expected arrival.”

As if planning missions to Mars wasn’t already challenging enough! In addition to all the things we need to worry about in getting there, now we need to worry about keeping our landing sites in pristine order. But of course, such considerations are understandable since our presence on Mars is expanding, and many key missions are planned for the coming years.

These include more robotic rovers in the next decade – i.e NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the ESA’s Exomars rover, and the ISRO’s Mangalyaan 2 rover – an even NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars” by the 2030s. If we’re going to make Mars a regular destination, we need to learn to pick up after ourselves!

Further Reading: Acta Astronautica,

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Howell – Seeker

‘Spectacular’ First Images and Data Released from ExoMars Orbiter

The first images taken by the newest mission to Mars have been released, and the teams behind the instruments on ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter are ecstatic.

“The first images we received are absolutely spectacular – and it was only meant to be a test,” said Nicolas Thomas, who leads the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System at the University of Bern.

The ExoMars TGO arrived in orbit at Mars over a month ago, on October 19, 2016 along with the Schiaparelli lander, which unfortunately crashed on the surface of Mars.

“A lot of public attention has been on the failed landing of Schiaparelli,” said Thomas, “but TGO has been working really well so we have been extremely busy in the past month.”

Scientists and engineers have been turning on and checking out the various instruments on TGO as it orbits in an initial elliptical orbit that takes it from just 250 km above the surface of Mars to nearly 100,000 km every 4.2 days.

During November 20-28 it spent two orbits testing its four science instruments for the first time and making important calibration measurements. A total of 11 images were returned during the first close fly-by during that period, which you can see in the video below.

The views show Hebes Chasma, an 8 km-deep trough in the northern most part of Valles Marineris, during the spacecraft’s closest approach.

“We saw Hebes Chasma at 2.8 metres per pixel” Thomas said. “That’s a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 km per hour and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich.”

The first stereo reconstruction of a small area in Noctis Labyrinthus. The image gives an altitude map of the region with a resolution of less than 20 meters. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE
The first stereo reconstruction of a small area in Noctis Labyrinthus. The image gives an altitude map of the region with a resolution of less than 20 meters. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE

The team tested the color and stereo capabilities of CaSSIS were also successfully tested. Below is a 3D reconstruction of a region called Noctis Labyrinthus that was produced from a stereo pair of images. This region is also part of Valles Marineris and has a system of deep, steep-walled valleys.

Thomas said these first images don’t show much color because the surfaces in this area are covered with dust so there are few color changes evident. “We will have to wait a little until something colourful passes under the spacecraft,” he said. Until then, the pictures will be black and white.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos. ExoMars will continue the search for biological and geologic activity on Mars, which may have had a much warmer, wetter climate in the past. The TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists that will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

Methane provides the most interest because it has been detected periodically on Mars. On Earth, methane is produced primarily by biological activity, and to a smaller extent by geological processes such as some hydrothermal reactions.

First detection of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter’s Atmospheric Chemistry Suite. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/ACS/IKI.
First detection of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter’s Atmospheric Chemistry Suite. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/ACS/IKI.

The two instruments that will be used to look for methane and other gases were also tested. During the test observations last week, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite focused on carbon dioxide, which makes up a large volume of the planet’s atmosphere, while the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery instrument looked for water.

The teams also coordinated observations with ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as they will do future corresponding observations during the mission.

Starting in March, 2017, TGO will use Mars atmosphere to perform aerobraking to gradually slow the spacecraft down to reach a roughly circular orbit 400 km above Mars. The aerobraking process will take between 9-12 months, with the primary science phase will beginning near the end of 2017.

The CaSSIS camera team said nominal operations will have the instrument acquiring 12-20 high resolution stereo and color images of selected targets per day.

Sources: ESA, University of Bern.

Schiaparelli’s One Second Of Terror

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscomos (the Russian federal space agency) had high hopes for the Schiaparelli lander, which crashed on the surface of Mars on October 19th. As part of the ExoMars program, its purpose was to test the technologies that will be used to deploy a rover to the Red Planet in 2020.

However, investigators are making progress towards determining what went wrong during the lander’s descent. Based on their most recent findings, they concluded that an anomaly took place with an on-board instrument that led to the lander detaching from its parachute and backshell prematurely. This ultimately caused it to land hard and be destroyed.

According to investigators, the data retrieved from the lander indicates that for the most part, Schiaparelli was functioning normally before it crashed. This included the parachute deploying once it had reached an altitude of 12 km and achieved a speed of 1730 km/h. When it reached an altitude of 7.8 km, the lander’s heatshield was released, and it radar altimeter provided accurate data to the lander’s on-board guidance, navigation and control system.

Schiaparelli lander descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab
Schiaparelli lander descent sequence. According to their investigation, the ESA has determined that an error led the parachute and backshell to be jettisoned prematurely, causing the lander to crash. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

All of this happened according to plan and did not contribute to the fatal crash. However, an anomaly then took place with the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), which is there to measure the rotation rates of the vehicle. Apparently, the IMU experienced saturation shortly after the parachute was deployed, causing it to persist for one second longer than required.

This error was then fed to the navigation system, which caused it to generate an estimate altitude that was below Mars’ actual ground level. In essence, the lander thought it was closer to the ground than it actually was. As such, the the parachute and backshell of the Entry and Descent Module (EDM) were jettisoned and the braking thrusters fired prematurely – at an altitude of 3.7 km instead of 1.2 km, as planned.

This briefest of errors caused the lander to free-fall for one second longer than it was supposed to, causing it to land hard and be destroyed. The investigators have confirmed this assessment using multiple computer simulations, all of which indicate that the IMU error was responsible. However, this is still a tentative conclusion that awaits final confirmation from the agency.

Schiaparelli on Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression of the Schiaparelli lander on Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

As David Parker, the ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration, said on on Wednesday, Nov. 23rd in a ESA press release:

“This is still a very preliminary conclusion of our technical investigations. The full picture will be provided in early 2017 by the future report of an external independent inquiry board, which is now being set up, as requested by ESA’s Director General, under the chairmanship of ESA’s Inspector General. But we will have learned much from Schiaparelli that will directly contribute to the second ExoMars mission being developed with our international partners for launch in 2020.”

In other words, this accident has not deterred the ESA and Roscosmos from pursuing the next stage in the ExoMars program – which is the deployment of the ExoMars rover in 2020. When it reaches Mars in 2021, the rover will be capable of navigating autonomously across the surface, using a on-board laboratory suite to search for signs of biological life, both past and present.

In the meantime, data retrieved from Schiaparelli’s other instruments is still being analyzed, as well as information from orbiters that observed the lander’s descent. It is hoped that this will shed further light on the accident, as well as salvage something from the mission. The Trace Gas Orbiter is also starting its first series of observations since it made its arrival in orbit on Oct. 19th, and will reach its operational orbit towards the end of 2017.

Further Reading: ESA

Is There Life on Mars?

Is There Life on Mars?


Perhaps the most important question we can possible ask is, “are we alone in the Universe?”.

And so far, the answer has been, “I don’t know”. I mean, it’s a huge Universe, with hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, and now we learn there are trillions of galaxies in the Universe.

Is there life closer to home? What about in the Solar System? There are a few existing places we could look for life close to home. Really any place in the Solar System where there’s liquid water. Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life, so it make sense to search for places with liquid water in the Solar System.

I know, I know, life could take all kinds of wonderful forms. Enlightened beings of pure energy, living among us right now. Or maybe space whales on Titan that swim through lakes of ammonia. Beep boop silicon robot lifeforms that calculate the wasted potential of our lives.

Sure, we could search for those things, and we will. Later. We haven’t even got this basic problem done yet. Earth water life? Check! Other water life? No idea.

It turns out, water’s everywhere in the Solar System. In comets and asteroids, on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, especially Europa or Enceladus. Or you could look for life on Mars.

Sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the "Murray formation" layer of lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA
Sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the “Murray formation” layer of lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA

Mars is similar to Earth in many ways, however, it’s smaller, has less gravity, a thinner atmosphere. And unfortunately, it’s bone dry. There are vast polar caps of water ice, but they’re frozen solid. There appears to be briny liquid water underneath the surface, and it occasionally spurts out onto the surface. Because it’s close and relatively easy to explore, it’s been the place scientists have gone looking for past or current life.

Researchers tried to answer the question with NASA’s twin Viking Landers, which touched down in 1976. The landers were both equipped with three biology experiments. The researchers weren’t kidding around, they were going to nail this question: is there life on Mars?

In the first experiment, they took soil samples from Mars, mixed in a liquid solution with organic and inorganic compounds, and then measured what chemicals were released. In a second experiment, they put Earth organic compounds into Martian soil, and saw carbon dioxide released. In the third experiment, they heated Martian soil and saw organic material come out of the soil.

The landing site of Viking 1 on Mars in 1977, with trenches dug in the soil for the biology experiments. Credit: NASA/JPL
The landing site of Viking 1 on Mars in 1977, with trenches dug in the soil for the biology experiments. Credit: NASA/JPL

Three experiments, and stuff happened in all three. Stuff! Pretty exciting, right? Unfortunately, there were equally plausible non-biological explanations for each of the results. The astrobiology community wasn’t convinced, and they still fight in brutal cage matches to this day. It was ambitious, but inconclusive. The worst kind of conclusive.

Researchers found more inconclusive evidence in 1994. Ugh, there’s that word again. They were studying a meteorite that fell in Antarctica, but came from Mars, based on gas samples taken from inside the rock.

They thought they found evidence of fossilized bacterial life inside the meteorite. But again, there were too many explanations for how the life could have gotten in there from here on Earth. Life found a way… to burrow into a rock from Mars.

NASA learned a powerful lesson from this experience. If they were going to prove life on Mars, they had to go about it carefully and conclusively, building up evidence that had no controversy.

Greetings from Mars! I’m Spirit and I was the first of two twin robots to land on Mars. Unlike my twin, Opportunity, I’m known as the hill-climbing robot. Artist Concept, Mars Exploration Rovers. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist Concept, Mars Exploration Rovers. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Spirit and Opportunity Rovers were an example of building up this case cautiously. They were sent to Mars in 2004 to find evidence of water. Not water today, but water in the ancient past. Old water Over the course of several years of exploration, both rovers turned up multiple lines of evidence there was water on the surface of Mars in the ancient past.

They found concretions, tiny pebbles containing iron-rich hematite that forms on Earth in water. They found the mineral gypsum; again, something that’s deposited by water on Earth.

Opportunity's Approach to 'Homestake'. This view from the front hazard-avoidance camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows the rover's arm's shadow falling near a bright mineral vein informally named Homestake. The vein is about the width of a thumb and about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum. Opportunity took this image on Sol 2763 on Mars (Nov. 7, 2011). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A bright mineral vein informally named Homestake. The vein is about the width of a thumb and about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 (Sol 2763) and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Rover took this analysis to the next level, arriving in 2012 and searching for evidence that water was on Mars for vast periods of time; long enough for Martian life to evolve.

Once again, Curiosity found multiple lines of evidence that water acted on the surface of Mars. It found an ancient streambed near its landing site, and drilled into rock that showed the region was habitable for long periods of time.

In 2014, NASA turned the focus of its rovers from looking for evidence of water to searching for past evidence of life.

Curiosity found one of the most interesting targets: a strange strange rock formations while it was passing through an ancient riverbed on Mars. While it was examining the Gillespie Lake outcrop in Yellowknife Bay, it photographed sedimentary rock that looks very similar to deposits we see here on Earth. They’re caused by the fossilized mats of bacteria colonies that lived billions of years ago.

A bright and interestingly shaped tiny pebble shows up among the soil on a rock, called "Gillespie Lake," which was imaged by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager on Dec. 19, 2012, the 132nd sol, or Martian day of Curiosity's mission on Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.
A bright and interestingly shaped tiny pebble shows up among the soil on a rock, called “Gillespie Lake,” which was imaged by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager on Dec. 19, 2012, the 132nd sol, or Martian day of Curiosity’s mission on Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

Not life today, but life when Mars was warmer and wetter. Still, fossilized life on Mars is better than no life at all. But there might still be life on Mars, right now, today. The best evidence is not on its surface, but in its atmosphere. Several spacecraft have detected trace amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Methane is a chemical that breaks down quickly in sunlight. If you farted on Mars, the methane from your farts would dissipate in a few hundred years. If spacecraft have detected this methane in the atmosphere, that means there’s some source replenishing those sneaky squeakers. It could be volcanic activity, but it might also be life. There could be microbes hanging on, in the last few places with liquid water, producing methane as a byproduct.

The European ExoMars orbiter just arrived at Mars, and its main job is sniff the Martian atmosphere and get to the bottom of this question.

Are there trace elements mixed in with the methane that means its volcanic in origin? Or did life create it? And if there’s life, where is it located? ExoMars should help us target a location for future study.

The European/Russian ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will launch in 2016 and sniff the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane which could originate for either biological or geological mechanisms. Credit: ESA
The European/Russian ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will sniff the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane which could originate for either biological or geological mechanisms. Credit: ESA

NASA is following up Curiosity with a twin rover designed to search for life. The Mars 2020 Rover will be a mobile astrobiology laboratory, capable of scooping up material from the surface of Mars and digesting it, scientifically speaking. It’ll search for the chemicals and structures produced by past life on Mars. It’ll also collect samples for a future sample return mission.

Even if we do discover if there’s life on Mars, it’s entirely possible that we and Martian life are actually related by a common ancestor, that split off billions of years ago. In fact, some astrobiologists think that Mars is a better place for life to have gotten started.

Not the dry husk of a Red Planet that we know today, but a much wetter, warmer version that we now know existed billions of years ago. When the surface of Mars was warm enough for liquid water to form oceans, lakes and rivers. And we now know it was like this for millions of years.

A conception of an ancient and/or future Mars, flush with oceans, clouds and life. Credit: Kevin Gill.
A conception of an ancient Mars, flush with oceans, clouds and life. Credit: Kevin Gill.

While Earth was still reeling from an early impact by the massive planet that crashed into it, forming the Moon, life on Mars could have gotten started early.

But how could we actually be related? The idea of Panspermia says that life could travel naturally from world to world in the Solar System, purely through the asteroid strikes that were regularly pounding everything in the early days.

Imagine an asteroid smashing into a world like Mars. In the lower gravity of Mars, debris from the impact could be launched into an escape trajectory, free to travel through the Solar System.

We know that bacteria can survive almost indefinitely, freeze dried, and protected from radiation within chunks of space rock. So it’s possible they could make the journey from Mars to Earth, crossing the orbit of our planet.

Even more amazingly, the meteorites that enter the Earth’s atmosphere would protect some of the bacterial inhabitants inside. As the Earth’s atmosphere is thick enough to slow down the descent of the space rocks, the tiny bacterialnauts could survive the entire journey from Mars, through space, to Earth.

In February 2013, asteroid DA 2014 safely passed by the Earth. There are several proposals abounding about bringing asteroids closer to our planet to better examine their structure. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If we do find life on Mars, how will we know it’s actually related to us? If Martian life has the similar DNA structure to Earth life, it’s probably related. In fact, we could probably trace the life back to determine the common ancestor, and even figure out when the tiny lifeforms make the journey.

If we do find life on Mars, which is related to us, that just means that life got around the Solar System. It doesn’t help us answer the bigger question about whether there’s life in the larger Universe. In fact, until we actually get a probe out to nearby stars, or receive signals from them, we might never know.

An even more amazing possibility is that it’s not related. That life on Mars arose completely independently. One clue that scientists will be looking for is the way the Martian life’s instructions are encoded. Here on Earth, all life follows “left-handed chirality” for the amino acid building blocks that make up DNA and RNA. But if right-handed amino acids are being used by Martian life, that would mean a completely independent origin of life.

Of course, if the life doesn’t use amino acids or DNA at all, then all bets are off. It’ll be truly alien, using a chemistry that we don’t understand at all.

There are many who believe that Mars isn’t the best place in the Solar System to search for life, that there are other places, like Europa or Enceladus, where there’s a vast amount of liquid water to be explored.

But Mars is close, it’s got a surface you can land on. We know there’s liquid water beneath the surface, and there was water there for a long time in the past. We’ve got the rovers, orbiters and landers on the planet and in the works to get to the bottom of this question. It’s an exciting time to be part of this search.

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.

Watch Live: ExoMars Arrival and Landing

After a seven month flight, ESA’s ExoMars mission arrives at the Red Planet today, October 19. You can watch live here as the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander make their historic entry into orbit and landing.

The action starts at 9:09am ET (1:09pm GMT) when TGO fires its main engines for 134 minutes for its Mars Orbit Insertion. That burn should put the orbiter in a highly elliptical orbit which will be refined over the next few months.

Then, at 10:42am EDT (2:42pm GMT), the Schiaparelli lander will begin its six-minute entry, descent and landing through Mars’ atmosphere, coming at about 13,000 mph (21,000 kph). The aeroshell will slow the craft enough for a parachute to deploy, and at about 1 km above the surface, three hydrazine thrusters will ignite and slow Schiaparelli until it is about 6.5 feet (2 meters) above the surface. The lander will then be dropped to the Martian surface.

ESA has put together a video of what a successful landing looks like:

The ExoMars 2016 mission is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos. ExoMars will continue the search for biological and geologic activity on Mars, which may have had a much warmer, wetter climate in the past. The TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists that will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

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 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

Methane is interesting because it can be produced by biology, volcanoes, natural gas and hydrothermal activity. TGO will investigate how methane is produced on Mars, as well as make follow up on measurements from NASA’s Curiosity rover and other instruments and telescopes that have detected methane on Mars.

The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission, which will bring an advanced lander to Mars in 2018.

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

Schiaparelli lander descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab
Schiaparelli lander descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

Weekly Space Hangout – October 14, 2016: Europe Crashes the Mars Party

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:

Guests:
Tyler Finlay of the Sally Ride EarthKAM project

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)

Their stories this week:
Two trillion galaxies?

Obama reaffirms NASA’s Mars plan

ExoMars arrives in the coming week

CosmoQuest Survey for Citizen Scientists – how can we make citizen science more available?

CosmoQuest Survey for Parents who have kids doing Science Fair Projects – how can we help you?

CosmoQuest Survey for Teachers assigning Science Fair Projects – how can we help you?

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

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