Exomars I

In today’s post I want to talk about the Exomars mission, what it’s all about, all the drama in the news and also the future of Exomars.

For those that don’t know, ExoMars is joint mission between ESA (European space agency) and ROSCOSMOS (Russian space agency) to search for the evidence of life on Mars.

Several scientific groups from both ground (KECK telescopes) and space (Mars Express) based observations have suggested large plumes of methane in the atmosphere. This is super exciting since 90% of the methane on Earth is produced from living organisms.

Exomars part 1 consists of the trace gas orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli the lander – it’s only their second attempt to land on Mars, even though their first attempt (Beagle 2) didn’t go so well. Their goal not only were to establish the present of life Mars but also to test the technology for future missions. TGO has the tools to sense methane and other trace gases (gases that make up <1% of the atmosphere) in Mars’ atmosphere and Schiaparelli has a small camera and sensors to evaluate the performance of the landing procedure.

It took Exomars 7 months to reach the planet, at which point (16th October 2016) TGO and Schiaparelli separated. Whilst TGO begins manoeuvres to steer into its orbit, Schiaparelli slowly coasts (over 3 days!!) to the edge of Mar’s atmosphere and then ~6mins to reach the surface. Whilst it may seem trivial, landing on Mars is difficult! Not only is there a 10 minute information lag, but a global dust storm is close approaching so the weather conditions aren’t the greatest for landing, AND the lander is travelling at 18000mph!!!

We had hoped that Schiaparelli would join NASA’s rover Opportunity in the Meridiani Planum region, an area where liquid water is likely to be found.

Many groups were listening out for Schiaparelli during it’s descent including Mars Express and the GMRT (in India), unfortunately his signal was cut short. Also the lander was configured to go into hibernation 15minutes after landing, so the fate of Schiaparelli is still unknown. Data analysed from the descent suggested the ejection of the heat shield and the parachute occurred much earlier than planned and possibly problems with the thrusters (used to slow it down).

TGO on the other hand had a successful orbit insertion! Hurrah! The main goal of the lander was to test technologies for future missions to Mars, so the data generated from the descent will prove very useful to engineers back on Earth.

Exomars part II consists of a rover equipped with a panchromatic camera for stereoscopic visuals and a drill to take subsurface samples of soil, 2m below ground. Originally planned for a 2018 launch but insufficient funding has caused the mission to slip now to 2020… With the fate of Schiaparelli unknown, it is difficult to say whether Exomars rover will ever get to Mars however a lot of research and work has already been spent on it and it would be an awful shame to give up on it now!