The space lanes to Mars are littered with the debris of probes trying to reach the surface of the dusty red planet. In 55 years of Mars exploration, no space organization in the world other than NASA has ever landed a probe on the surface of Mars that survived more than a handful of seconds.
NASA’s success in placing a series of increasingly larger and more complex spacecraft on the surface of Mars, culminating in the 1-ton rover Curiosity in 2012, has been quite remarkable compared to other space agencies. Eight of NASA’s nine missions to the surface of Mars have been successful, with only the Mars Polar Lander in 1999 failing to reach the surface safely.
In contrast, four of the Soviet Union’s five landers failed to reach Mars safely, and the one that did, Mars 3 in 1971, only survived for about 15 seconds. In addition, there have been a number of failed Soviet and Russian attempts to reach the Martian moon Phobos.
Europe has only once attempted to land a spacecraft on Mars, in 2003, when contact with Beagle 2 was lost during a landing attempt. Scientists believe that two of its solar panels may have failed to deploy. All these international failures are adding pressure to the European Space Agency after the first of its two ExoMars missions successfully launched this morning from Baikonur, Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Proton rocket.
The European Space Agency’s ExoMars program represents a multi-pronged approach to better addressing the question of whether life ever existed on Mars. The “Exo” part of his name stands for exobiology. Monday morning’s launch is the first step, with two elements – the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli – launching an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module.
The second, more ambitious part of the ExoMars program is scheduled for launch in 2018 and includes a rover and surface science platform. This lander will contain a rover with a drill that can extract samples up to 2 meters deep and an infrared spectrometer to analyze the core samples. This analysis includes a scan for possible organic substances.
But today’s mission must first become a success. The Trace Gas Orbiter is designed for a five-year operation to map the distribution of methane and other trace gases in the Martian atmosphere. If life existed on Mars today, it would likely produce methane. This spacecraft will also serve as a data relay for the ExoMars 2018 rover and possibly NASA rovers as well.
The orbiter’s traveling companion, the Schiaparelli lander, will separate from the orbiter in about seven months, three days before it reaches the Martian atmosphere. Then, on October 19, the 1.65-meter lander will approach the red planet at a speed of about 21,000 km/h. From an altitude of 121 km to 11 km, the spacecraft’s heat shield will char and melt away, slowing the spacecraft to 1,700 km/h and allowing a parachute to deploy.
As it approaches the ground, nine hydrazine-powered thrusters will fire to control speed down to a few meters per second, and a crushable structure will absorb the force of impact. Once on the surface, the probe’s limited science package is designed to operate for a few days. Schiaparelli’s primary role will be to demonstrate this landing technology so that the 2018 rover mission can also safely reach the surface of Mars.
The ExoMars program has been in various stages of planning since the turn of the century. In 2008, NASA and the European Space Agency reached an agreement to share the cost of the two missions, an orbiter and landers, that would both search for life and test technologies for a mission to return samples of Martian soil and rocks to Earth. to steer.
However, in February 2012, President Obama’s budget called for the cancellation of NASA’s participation in the program to pay for the James Webb Space Telescope, which continued to exceed its budget allocation. “Tough choices had to be made,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said of the agency’s science budget at the time.
At that point, the European Space Agency turned to Russia, which had long wanted to return to Mars after a series of missions in the 1970s. The Russian space agency agreed to provide Proton rockets for both the 2016 and 2018 launches, as well as some science instruments for the 2016 orbiter. The Russians will also help develop technology for the 2018 rover.
And so today’s launch was neither the beginning nor the end of Europe’s and Russia’s efforts to finally land a robust lander safely on the surface of Mars. It’s just one step, with the bigger tests later this year with the Schiaparelli landing, and in 2018 when a highly capable rover tries to repeat this feat.