Tension at the European Space Agency’s mission control in Darmstadt, Germany is rising as the European-Russian ExoMars probe makes its final descent to the Red Planet. ESA dispatched the experimental paddling pool-sized probe in March to explore the planet’s atmosphere and search for signs of life. Seven months and 496 million kilometers later, the Schiaparelli demonstrator module along with the Trace Gas Orbiter , a joint project of the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, are set to reach their target destination – the Meridiani Planum in the Martian highlands – on Wednesday. “Everything has to function to millisecond precision,” ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago said ahead of the planned landing. “And our options for intervening are precisely zero.” Data transmitted from the Red Planet takes around 10 minutes to reach Earth. This signal delay means a computer will control the landing maneuver for the 600 kilogram high-tech machine. Should anything go wrong, the craft will be a pile of scrap metal embedded into the surface of Earth’s nearest neighbor before scientists are aware of its fate. Nervous wait There were nervous moments for ground controllers on Sunday when the Trace Gas Orbiter, designed to enter Mars’ orbit to analyze its atmosphere for signs of life, stopped sending status updates for over an hour before coming back online.
The panic was short-lived. In the early hours of Monday, the TGO successfully completed a planned maneuver allowing it to change course and avoid crashing into the Martian surface, ESA said.
If all goes to plan in the final hours before landing, Schiaparelli will reach the atmosphere at an altitude of 121 kilometers, moving a brisk 21,000 kilometers per hour . The whole trip will take no longer than six minutes. As it approaches the Martian surface, a discardable “aeroshell” will protect the lander against the heat generated by atmospheric drag, while a supersonic parachute and nine thrusters will brake it. Cushioning its final impact will be a crushable structure attached to the lander’s underside.
The ExoMars mission will be the first time this entry and landing combination will be used. The data gleaned from the maneuver will be crucial to planning the safe landing for much bigger and more expensive rovers in future. Schiaparelli will send data on temperature, humidity, density profile and electrical properties.
The ExoMars TGO and Schiaparelli began the journey to Mars in March
Without solar panels, the lander is completely battery-driven. Once landed on the Red Planet’s surface, the TGO, with its state-of-the-art trace gas sensors, as well as an atomic particle detector that will have the ability to identify buried water-ice deposits, will set off to study Mars’ other surface features, including those containing gas sources such as volcanoes. This should keep the…