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Europe's ExoMars spacecraft launches to Red Planet to seek out signs of life

A Russian Proton-M rocket lifts off with the European-led ExoMars 2016 mission on March 14, 2016. (ESA/Stephane Corvaja)
Mar. 14, 2016

– A European Mars mission launched on a Russian rocket Monday (March 14), sending an orbiter and an experimental lander on a journey to find signs of life on the Red Planet.

The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft – comprising the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, a landing demonstrator – lifted off at 5:31 a.m. EDT (0931 GMT) atop a Proton-M rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. A joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia's Roscosmos, ExoMars 2016 marks the start of a new era of Mars exploration for Europe.

The ExoMars 2016 orbiter will search for signs of life from above Mars and for evidence of water-ice deposits on and just beneath the Martian surface.

Schiaparelli, which will separate from the orbiter just days before their arrival at Mars, will demonstrate that ESA has the technology to carry out a controlled landing, needed for further exploration of the planet.

A second ExoMars mission is planned for 2018, to send a rover and surface science platform to the surface.

Journey to Mars

The launch on Monday began the ExoMars 2016 mission's seven-month, 308-million-mile (496-million-km) journey to Mars.

Eleven hours liftoff, at about 3,000 miles (4,900 km) above the Earth, the Proton-M Breeze-M upper stage will jettison the Trace Gas Orbiter – with Schiaparelli attached, into an interplanetary transfer orbit.

The ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander seen prior to being encapsulated for launch. (ESA/B. Bethge)

During the first six weeks of the mission, the spacecraft's instruments and systems will be commissioned as they are checked by mission control teams at the European Space Operations Center in Germany. The probe will be tracked by ESA's ground stations at Malargüe, Argentina, and New Norcia, Australia.

In early April, the NASA Electra radio transponder aboard TGO will be switched on and tested by a joint ESA-NASA team. This device will play a crucial role once the orbiter is in routine operation around Mars, providing daily data relay services for NASA and ESA landers and rovers.

Commissioning activities will continue through June, when the TGO will enter a cruise phase out to Mars.

On Oct. 16, Schiaparelli will be deployed to land on Mars and three days later, TGO will enter the planet's orbit.

Tracing the methane

A key goal of the ExoMars 2016 mission is to follow up on earlier indications that small amounts of methane exist in the Martian atmosphere. Methane should be destroyed by ultraviolet radiation on timescale of hundreds of years, and so must still be in production today.

Mars' methane could be from biological sources – such as primitive microbes similar to methanogens on Earth – or it could be linked to geological processes taking place in the presence of hot liquid water beneath the Martian surface. TGO will map the spatial and temporal distribution and the isotopic make-up of the methane in the atmosphere to help distinguish between the different origin scenarios.

Artist's impression of the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter. (ESA)

TGO will also image and characterize surface features that may be related to trace-gas sources, such as volcanoes.

To accomplish these goals, the orbiter is outfitted with four science instruments, including two spectrometers — ACS, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite and NOMAD, the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery – that will inventory the atmospheric trace gases and monitor seasonal changes in order to create detailed models.

The Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) will image features on the planet, while the Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND) will map hydrogen down to a depth of 3 feet (1 m) to reveal deposits of water-ice just below the surface.

Orbiting 250 miles (400 km) above Mars, the moving van-size TGO will begin science operations in December 2017 and is expected to operate for two years. TGO will also act as a data relay for the ExoMars 2018 rover and for NASA's rovers Opportunity and Curiosity.

Go for landing

The second part of the ExoMars 2016 mission is the entry, descent, and landing demonstrator Schiaparelli, named for the Italian astronomer whose observations of Mars in 1877 led him to think there were canals on its surface. Giovanni Schiaparelli's map of Mars gave rise to belief and folklore that there was intelligent life on the planet – later dispelled by orbiter and lander missions.

Schiaparelli will enter Mars' atmosphere on Oct. 19 at an altitude of about 75 miles (121 km) and a speed of almost 13,000 mph (21,000 km/h). The 8-foot-wide (2.4 m) lander will then be slowed down by the atmospheric drag, with the front shield of its aeroshell bearing the brunt of the heating.

Overview of Schiaparelli's entry, descent and landing. (ESA/ATG)

At roughly 7 miles (11 km) above the surface, a supersonic parachute will deploy and the aeroshell will be jettisoned. The parachute will slow Schiaparelli's descent further, and then, at 0.75 miles (1.2 km), the back half of the aeroshell, with the parachute attached to it, will also be jettisoned.

Schiaparelli will then activate its nine thrusters to control its speed. A radar system will measure the height above the surface and at around 6.5 feet (2 m) high, Schiaparelli will briefly hover, cut its engines and fall to the surface.

The impact force will be absorbed by a crushable structure on the underside of the lander, similar to the crumple zone on a car. The entire entry, descent, and landing sequence will take less than six minutes.

Schiaparelli will touchdown in a relatively flat region called Meridiani Planum. The area is close to where Opportunity landed, and it may be possible for it to image Schiaparelli's descent.

Artist's impression of the interior of the ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. (ESA/ATG)

Schiaparelli was designed primarily to demonstrate entry, descent and landing but a small meteorological station will operate on the surface for a few days. It will also take the first measurements of the Martian atmosphere's electrical properties.

A compact array of laser retro-reflectors, known as INRRI, is attached to the upward-facing surface of Schiaparelli to be used as a target for future orbiters to locate the lander.

A simple camera on Schiaparelli will take 15 monochrome images during the descent to provide engineering insight into the landing process, however it is not designed to take images from the surface.

Europe at Mars

Mars has been a target for international robotic exploration efforts since the 1960s. Numerous missions from the U.S., the former USSR, India, Japan, and Europe have flown to the Red Planet, with varying degrees of success, to study the planet's features and to understand the similarities and differences between it and Earth.

Artist's impression of the separation of ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli from the Trace Gas Orbiter, on its way to Mars. (ESA/D. Ducros)

The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft follows ESA's Mars Express mission that was launched in 2003 and is still in operation. Mars Express also included a lander, Beagle 2, that was thought to be destroyed due to a lack of communications, but was found partially deployed on the surface in 2015.

The ExoMars missions began as a partnership between ESA and NASA, but budget constraints forced the U.S. to withdraw from the program in 2012. Roscosmos stepped in as ESA's partner, contributing both the 2016 and 2018 launch vehicles and some of the instruments.

The ExoMars 2018 mission will land a European rover and a Russian science platform. The rover will build upon the 2016 orbiter's search for life by drilling into the surface to a depth of 6.5 feet (2 m) to search for biomarkers.

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