2016-10-19 10:34:18
ExoMars Mission to Join Crowd of Spacecraft at Mars

10:34, October 19 202 0

Mars is about to get some new inhabitants, both in orbit and on its surface.

ExoMars 2016, a joint mission of the European and Russian space agencies, consists of an orbiter and a lander that will arrive at the red planet on Wednesday.

The European Space Agency, which built the Schiaparelli lander, has never successfully planted a spacecraft on Mars. Schiaparelli separated from the orbiter on Sunday and, if all goes well, will set down just before 11 a.m. Eastern time. The E.S.A. will webcast coverage from its operations center in Germany starting at 9 a.m.

At that time, the other part of the ExoMars mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter, should be in the middle of a two-hour engine burn as it attempts to enter orbit around Mars — the latest addition to the flotilla of probes observing Mars from above.

ExoMars launched in March on a Russian rocket from Kazakhstan, with the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli mated together for the seven-month trip to Mars.

The orbiter’s primary mission is to search for methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere. Transient methane has been detected on the planet, presumably produced by a geological process requiring heat and liquid water or, even more exciting, by microbes.

More evidence of the gas on Mars could provide important clues about the planet’s geology, or even offer hints of life there.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to test landing technologies for future missions. It carries a small weather station to measure temperature, humidity, dust and wind, but the batteries will drain after a few days.

Early on Monday, the orbiter completed maneuvers to avoid a collision with Mars. This set the stage for a 139-minute burn of its engines that will slow the spacecraft on Wednesday and insert it into an orbit around the planet.

But Schiaparelli is to speed onward, at 13,000 miles per hour, into the atmosphere. Slowed first by a heat shield, then parachutes and finally thrusters, the probe’s descent to the surface should take less than six minutes.

Schiaparelli is to land on a plain named Meridiani Planum, the region that NASA’s Opportunity rover has been exploring for a dozen years.

Neither the orbiter nor the lander will want for company in and around the red planet.

On the surface, two rovers sent by NASA are exploring Mars’s dunes and craters. Opportunity, active since 2004, has lasted 12 years beyond its planned expiration date. Curiosity, which landed in 2012, has drilled into the planet’s surface and discovered organic chemicals essential to life.

The Mars Express orbiter, launched in 2003 by the E.S.A., is still in orbit around Mars. There are also three NASA spacecraft: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Odyssey and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or Maven.

An Indian probe, the Mars Orbiter Mission, has orbited the planet since 2014.

In 2018, NASA plans to land the Insight probe on Mars to study the planet’s interior processes. SpaceX also is looking to drop one of its Dragon capsules on the surface, a test that could lead to a much larger spacecraft carrying colonists there.

Europe and Russia have an ambitious follow-up to the ExoMars collaboration that is to launch in 2020 and land in April 2021. That mission will consist of a rover and a surface science platform.

That could be a busy year for Mars. NASA, India, China and the United Arab Emirates also are looking to launch spacecraft to the planet then.