About 28 months ago, Mangalyaan, also known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), soared through the skies of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, on the Eastern coast of India. This mission made history, because India became the first Asian nation to reach Mars and the very first country to get into Martian orbit on its first try (at a very low cost, making the feat all the more impressive).
In January 2016, a new launch window opened, allowing us, people from the Earth, to throw a new set of scientific and engineering marvels to our red neighbor. This Monday, March 14th, at 09:31 UTC, the first part of the joint ExoMars mission between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos will begin its 7 months journey. After the cancellation of the launch of the American InSight (rescheduled to May 2018), ExoMars stands as the one and only mission to Mars in 2016, with an arrival planned for October. The Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli Lander, placed on top of a Proton rocket, will form the largest spacecraft launched to Mars since the 80s.
Moreover, if successful, the Schiaparelli EDM (Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module) will pave the way for the ExoMars rover in 2018, a more complex vehicle capable of drilling down to a 2-meter depth, offering a new way to explore Mars geological history. Another page of space exploration history will be written if Schiaparelli succeeds during its entry in the Martian atmosphere. Indeed, the common saying that “space is hard” fully applies here, and resulted in repeating failures of all non-American landing attempts in the past, despite multiple Soviet/Russian and European missions (more details here).
The Beagle 2 lander discovered on the surface of Mars after 12 years (Credit: HIRISE/NASA/Leicester)
One candidate to mention as well is the British Beagle 2 lander, which approached Mars as part of the ESA Mars Express Mission at the end of 2003. Although the orbiter is still functioning nominally more than 10 years later, its small circular companion was reported lost in 2004, when it detached from the orbiter and entered the atmosphere. Images taken by an American probe orbiting Mars (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) about a year ago revealed that Beagle 2 actually reached the surface, but a solar panel failure prevented it from communicating back to Earth, dragging it into the dark corners of Mars exploration history.
But let’s not only focus on the records, because setting them, despite the well deserved fame it provides, cannot be the sole motivation for planetary exploration and ExoMars has much more to offer. The Trace Gas Orbiter will primarily focus on building upon a discovery made by its predecessor. In 2004, the Mars Express Orbiter detected the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, and measurements from the Curiosity rover in December 2014 suggested a two-month long burst in methane levels around the rover. Some scientists argue that those methane detections may arise from other sources.
For example, Mariner 7’s alleged detection in 1969 was proved wrong afterwards because the methane observation was due to carbon dioxyde ice. Today some doubt still subsist in the community about the more recent detections. It was therefore necessary to send improved instruments to the planet, to definitely confirm the presence of methane and try to explain its origin. This question may indeed receive different answers. It could be a result of geological hydrothermal processes. But there is a more exciting plausible explanation: biological activity. Earth-based microbes are responsible for most of the methane that surrounds us. Such an explanation, if confirmed, could be a major new step towards a possible discovery of life on Mars.
To accomplish this goal, the orbiter has 4 instruments built in, two Europeans and two Russians. NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery), built in Belgium, will use a set of 2 infrared and 1 ultraviolet spectrometers to detect trace gases in the atmosphere, including methane. CaSSIS (Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System), built in Switzerland, is a high resolution camera (a sophisticated rotating telescope really) that will provide color stereo images of land strips 9.5 km wide (5 meters per pixel). The ACS (Atmospheric Chemistry Suite) and FREND (Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector), both developed in Moscow, will respectively be used as a complement of NOMAD to study the chemistry of the Martian atmosphere and as a surface hydrogen detector, looking for water-ice up to a meter deep.
The little Schiaparelli lander, as its other name suggests, has a primary mission of demonstrating the European ability to land on Mars, and the associated technologies. It thus comes with a descent camera purposely called DeCa associated with AMELIA (Atmospheric Mars Entry and Landing Investigation and Analysis) and COMARS+ (Combined Aerothermal and Radiometer Sensors Instrument Package). The science payload is composed of DREAMS (Dust Characterisation, Risk Assessment, and Environment Analyser on the Martian Surface) that will look into the Martian winds and atmosphere from the ground (humidity, pressure, temperature, transparency, etc). All of this fits into a 1.65 m spacecraft in diameter, weighing 600 kg, that will enter the atmosphere protected by a heatshield and slowed down by parachutes, until all of this protective enclosure is jettisoned and the lander makes its final approach using a set of small hydrazine thrusters.
This mission comes at a time when ESA under the leadership of its Director General Jan Woerner is seriously considering building a permanent base on the Moon called the Moon Village, both as a scientific facility, a follow-up to the International Space Station, and a step on the way to Mars, a place to develop the necessary technologies and colony designs. It also happens when new space powers such as China and India express their will to send their own landers in the upcoming years. Europe, through partnerships and by developing its own technologies inside the aerospace industry (led by Thales Alenia space for the ExoMars mission) secures a place in the history books. When time comes for furthering Mars exploration with human operations, Europe will be able to take part in the endeavor. Moreover, not putting aside the scientific objectives and the ultimate goal of finding life in our Solar System, the old continent demonstrated very recently with the Rosetta mission that not only the American agency is capable of breakthroughs.
Further reading and sources of this article:
SpaceFlightNow article on ExoMars 2016 with pictures of the final assembly.
Space.com article about the relationship between methane detection and life.
Astrobiology Magazine on the history of methane detections on Mars.
ESA webpage presenting the Trace Gas Orbiters instruments.
ESA webpage detailing the Schiaparelli lander science package.