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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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 pageand 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.
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)!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!