Two pathfinding spacecraft designed to sniff out signs of life on Mars will arrive at the red planet Wednesday, and the stakes are high.
The Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander — which together make up the first of the two-part ExoMars mission run by Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) — are speeding toward the red world after launching to space in March. And while any attempt to land on Mars is a big deal, this one holds quite a lot of weight for its sponsors.
If the Schiaparelli lands and remains operational on Mars, it will become the first successful ESA mission to land on the distant world's surface. And if the spacecraft remains operational on Mars' surface for longer than 20 seconds, this will also be a first for Russia.
Many countries and space agencies — including the ESA and India's space agency — have successfully put spacecraft into orbit around Mars. However, the surface of the red planet has been the exclusive domain of NASA rovers and landers (with the exception of the Soviet Union's very short-lived Mars 3 lander in the 1970s).
Space agencies have been aiming to land spacecraft on Mars for decades, but NASA is the only one to pull it off without a hitch. In total, the U.S. agency has landed seven missions on the rusty surface of the planet.
The United Kingdom attempted to send its Beagle 2 lander to the surface of Mars as part of the ESA's Mars Express mission, but it lost communications with the craft during its landing attempt in 2003.
The Schiaparelli lander could be the international community's first successful foray to the Martian surface, possibly paving the way for more international missions to the red planet in the future.
A demonstration project
The lander is a "technology demonstration" built specifically to help mission controllers test the technology that will be used on a future full-scale mission to the red planet's surface.
The mission should eventually help engineers working with the ESA and Russia's space agency to land a Mars rover and "surface platform." Such a mission is expected to launch to the planet as early as 2020.
Landing on Mars isn't a simple task. Mars' thin atmosphere isn't sufficient for slowing a spacecraft speeding at thousands of miles per hour as it arrives, so engineers have to be creative.
NASA missions have utilized parachutes, cushioning balloons and a maneuver dubbed "seven minutes of terror" by engineers landing the car-sized Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012, plus other tactics in order to successfully land heavy craft on the planet.
The ESA team has gone for a multiple choice option. The Schiaparelli lander will make use of a heat shield, parachute, thrusters and a "crushable structure" that will absorb the impact of the landing, the ESA said.
The lander also comes equipped with a camera that will take a series of 15 photos to show mission managers back on Earth what it's looking at on the way down.
"The camera will start taking images around a minute after Schiaparelli’s front shield is jettisoned, when the module is predicted to be about 3 km above the surface," the ESA said in a statement.
Life on Mars
This mission could also help scientists gather more data about how to land people on the surface of Mars, a major goal for NASA as well as private companies, most notably Elon Musk's SpaceX.
“The ExoMars technology demonstration will provide valuable data on the atmosphere and its interaction with thermal-protection systems and aerodynamic decelerators," Mason Peck, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, said in a statement.
Image: ESA – CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
"So, ExoMars is an important mission, certainly for science, but also for advancing the space technology that will put humans on Mars in the next couple of decades."
While the main point of the lander mission is to test technology, the craft will conduct a little research as well.
The larger goal of the two-part ExoMars mission is to help gather data on whether Mars ever hosted life by sniffing out the Martian atmosphere for methane or other gases that could indicate life on the planet. The lander will help further that goal, since it will sample the planet's atmosphere during its short time functioning on the planet.
You can watch ESA coverage of the lander's journey to the surface of Mars starting at 11:40 a.m. ET on Wednesday.