Get ready for ESA's white knuckle descent to the red planet

Posted by ap507 at Oct 19, 2016 12:58 PM |
Professor Mark Sims discusses the Mars-bound Schiaparelli craft and its scheduled landing on the surface of Mars

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Happy landing, we hope. On Wednesday, the Mars-bound Schiaparelli craft will undergo its inevitable “seven minutes of terror” – the time between entering the atmosphere of Mars and its scheduled landing on the surface of the red planet.

This is the white knuckle phase of the mission – landing on Mars is one of space exploration's trickier manoeuvres because of the thinness of its atmosphere. It is made all the more nerve-shredding as the distance from earth means direct control by radio signal is impossible.

Instead the lander, one of the key elements of the European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars programme, will be controlled by pre-programmed onboard systems. If all goes well, simple tones broadcast at UHF frequencies will be picked up by India's Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune around 1600 BST, approximately 9 minutes after Schiaparelli arrives on the dusty Meridiani Plain.

If so, this will mark the first transmission of data from the surface of Mars for ESA.

It will, however, be its second landing. As we know now from images captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the pioneering UK-led lander Beagle 2, carried to Mars by ESA’s Mars Express craft, successfully touched down on Christmas Day 2003.  But it never communicated. We believe it failed to fully deploy, stopping it transmitting and signalling the UK’s and ESA’s first landing on Mars. It was due to announce success with a tune provided by the British band Blur.

It is good to see that the wind sensor on Schiaparelli is derived from Beagle 2 and that the lessons learnt from its journey have been applied to this and other missions. That's a welcome legacy.

The importance of Schiaparelli and its companion orbiter is clear. ExoMars continues ESA’s exploration of the red planet and signals to NASA and other potential partners that ESA wants to be part of even more ambitious missions, such as a sample return to Earth and, in the longer term, human exploration of Mars.

For those of us in the UK, Wednesday will be a big day. Our industry and academia have key roles and contributions in ExoMars and plans for future missions such as sample return. As with most space exploration, cooperation is key – with RosCosmos, ESA and NASA involved in both Schiaparelli and the Trace Gas Orbiter, the larger craft from which it separated on Sunday; crucially a follow-up ExoMars rover is due to land in April 2021 and Wednesday's entry, descent and landing is chiefly a test of the technology for that.

The rover is highly ambitious – it will be equipped with a drill able to collect and analyse samples from 1 to 1.5 metres beneath the surface, where organics and perhaps evidence of life may be deep enough to survive brutal radiation and chemical degradation.

With so much riding on this, I for one will be keeping my fingers firmly crossed on Wednesday, having lived through the thrill and terror of a Mars landing. In Beagle 2's case, we had to wait nearly 11 years to learn it was very nearly totally successful.

Hopefully ESA will only have to wait minutes. Happy landing Schiaparelli.

Mark Sims is interim director of the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester and was mission manager for Beagle 2, leading flight operations during Mars entry, descent and landing

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