Published: Thu, October 20, 2016
Research | By Jennifer Evans

Experimental European Mars probe set for landing on Mars

A joint venture between Russia's Roscosmos space agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) is about to reach a dramatic milestone.

On Wednesday, the ExoMars mission - a two-spacecraft joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian Federation - will arrive at Mars after a 7-month journey through space.

The orbiter, which also has NASA-made instruments on board, will analyze methane and other gases in the atmosphere. Detailed data from the lander aren't expected before 1815 GMT.

Flight director Michel Denis, at mission control in Germany, said the landing is an extremely risky business: "To get the mothership into orbit, we must make a small but vital adjustment on 17 October to ensure it avoids the planet".

He added: "It is clear these are not good signs".

The signal was always very faint, contained no information about the lander's health or progress but was "nice to have", said ESA spacecraft operations manager Andrea Accomazzo. At that point, the European Space Agency turned to Russian Federation, which has long wanted to return to Mars after a series of missions in the 1970s. In 2020, the ESA and Roskosmos plan to launch a rover that will eventually arrive at Mars in 2021.

The European Space Agency is still waiting for confirmation that its Schiaparelli probe has landed on Mars.

During the six minutes descent to the surface, it used a parachute and thrusters to slow from a speed of almost 21,000 km (13,000 miles) per hour.

The 2016 lander will carry an global suite of science instruments and test European entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission, which will bring an advanced lander to Mars in 2018.

NASA already has two rovers on Mars to study the planet's dunes and craters.

The Proton-M rocket, carrying the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft to Mars, blasts off from the launchpad at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 14, 2016.

Starting next year, the orbiter will sniff the Martian atmosphere for traces of methane and help scientists decide if it has a geological or biological origin.

The prospect of finding life on Mars, even microscopic organisms, has excited scientists for some time - but so far none has been discovered.

Schiaparelli hitched a ride to Mars on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft, crossing a distance of 500 million km (310 million miles) on its seven-month journey from Earth. ESA has pegged the separation of the Schiaparelli from the TGO a success. The closest Europe came was in 2003 when the UK-led Beagle 2 lander touched down, but was then lost.

"It's fundamental that tonight we look at this telemetry".

"We can not exclude that (it) is safe on the surface and might be in a position to transmit, but I would judge it unlikely".

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