ExoMars is Suspended. ESA is Looking for new Solutions to Replace Russian Components

Coordination between countries in space exploration is widespread.  However, sometimes that coordination falls apart.  In most cases, that failure is due to budgetary constraints. But in more recent times, it is due to geopolitical ones.  Specifically, western space agencies have begun to cut ties with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, on every program excluding the International Space Station, which is still operating normally.  One of those project casualties is the timeline of the oft-delayed Exomars rover, Rosalind Franklin.  

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There are Places Where Salty Water Could Emerge Onto the Surface of Mars

A computer generated view of Mars, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The existence of water on Mars is a contentious subject. We know there used to be water on the surface of the planet, though it’s long gone now. We know there’s frozen water underground in the world, and we know there’s water vapour in the air. But life needs liquid water.

Could there be liquid water on Mars?

A new study shows how salty water could emerge from the atmosphere onto Mars’ surface under the right conditions.

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Rings Inside a Martian Crater Reveal its Ancient History

An unusual crater on Mars, as seen by the CaSSIS camera onboard the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on 13 June 2021 in the vast northern plains of Acidalia Planitia. Credit: ,ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS,

Is this a closeup look at a tree stump, or an orbital view of an impact crater? At first glance, it might be hard to tell. But this image of a crater on Mars provides planetary scientists almost the same kind of climate history data about the Red Planet as tree rings provide to climate scientists here on Earth.

This picture was taken by the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging (CaSSIS) camera onboard the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in 2016 and began its full science mission in 2018.

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The Bottom of Valles Marineris Seems to Have Water Mixed in With the Regolith

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For generations, humans have dreamed of the day when we might set foot on Mars. For many others, the dream has been one of settling on Mars and creating an outpost of human civilization there. Today, it looks as though both of these dreams are getting closer to becoming a reality, as space agencies and the commercial space industry are deep into planning regular crewed missions to the Red Planet. And when planning for long-duration missions to destinations in deep space, a vital aspect is assessing the local environment.

For example, missions to Mars will need to be as self-sufficient as possible, which means using local resources to meet the needs of the mission and astronauts – a process known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). According to new data from the ESA-Roscomos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the massive equatorial canyon known as Valles Marineris (Valley of Mars) contains vast deposits of ice that have remained hidden to scientists until now.

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ExoMars Will be Drilling 1.7 Meters to Pull its Samples From Below the Surface of Mars

In about a year (Sept. 20th, 2022), the Rosalind Franklin rover will depart for Mars. As the latest mission in the ESA’s and Roscosmos’ ExoMars program, Rosalind Franklin will join the small army of orbiters, landers, and rovers that are working to characterize the Martian atmosphere and environment. A key aspect of the rover’s mission will involve drilling into the Martian soil and rock and obtaining samples from deep beneath the surface.

To prepare for drilling operations on Mars, the ESA, Italian space agency (ASI), and their commercial partners have been conducting tests with a replica – aka. the Ground Test Model (GTM). Recently, the test model completed its first round of sample collection, known as the Mars Terrain Simulation (MTS). The rover drilled into hard stone and extracted samples from 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) beneath the surface in a record-breaking feat.

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Perseverance Seen From Space by ESA’s ExoMars Orbiter

Credit: ESA

A little over a week ago (February 18th, 2021), NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero crater on the surface of Mars. In what was truly a media circus, people from all over the world tuned to watch the live coverage of the rover landing. When Perseverance touched down, it wasn’t just the mission controllers at NASA who triumphantly jumped to their feet to cheer and applaud.

In the days that followed, the world was treated to all kinds of media that showed the surface of Mars and the descent. The most recent comes from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which is part of the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars program. From its vantage point, high above the Martian skies, the TGO caught sight of Perseverance in the Jezero crater and acquired images that show the rover and other elements of its landing vehicle.

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ExoMars Sees the Martian Atmosphere Glowing Green

Credit: ESA

In the course of studying Mars, scientists have come to identify some key similarities to Earth’s own. One notable example is the way our atmospheres interact with sunlight to produce dazzling displays of energy. On Earth, these include not just the aurorae near the polar regions (Aurora Borealis and Australis), but the constant green glow that is the result of oxygen molecules interacting with sunlight (aka. “airglow”).

On Earth, airglow can be seen “edge-on” from space, as exemplified by the many spectacular images that are taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This phenomenon was recently observed around Mars for the first time by the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in 2016 a part of the ExoMars program. Like aurorae, this observation is yet another example of how Mars is “Earth’s Twin.”

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This is the Spot Where ESA’s Schiaparelli Crashed Into Mars

Credit: HiRISE/LPL/University of Arizona

On October 19th, 2016, the NASA/ESA ExoMars mission arrived at the Red Planet to begin its study of the surface and atmosphere. While the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully established orbit around Mars, the Schiaparelli Lander crashed on its way to the surface. At the time, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) acquired images of the crash site using its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

In March and December of 2019, the HiRISE camera captured images of this region once again to see what the crash site looked like roughly three years later. The two images show the impact crater that resulted from the crash, which was partially-obscured by dust clouds created by the recent planet-wide dust storm. This storm lasted throughout the summer of 2019 and coincided with Spring in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

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ExoMars Has Sent Back its First Images From Mars

ExoMars images Korolev Crater. Copyright: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

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

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/D. Ducros

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