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Europe’s Mars Orbiter and First Lander Poised for Take-Off

March 12, 2016 (EIRNS)—The first of two ambitious robotic Mars missions, led by the European Space Agency (ESA), is scheduled for launch on Monday morning, March 14. The Russian Proton rocket will send ESA’s ExoMars 2016 spacecraft on its way from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on a mission to make precise measurements from orbit of Mars’ atmosphere, and test technology for entry into and then descent through the atmosphere, and landing on the surface. The lander is a demonstration mission, in preparation for a future rover on the red planet. The mission is composed of the Trace Gas Orbiter, and the Schiaparelli lander. If Monday’s launch has to be postponed, launch is possible until March 25. Although Europe was the first space agency to orbit Mars successfully on the first try, in 2003, its small Beagle II lander fell silent after landing.

The mission is a joint ESA/ASI/Russian mission and will be directed by the Turin control room of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), which is the main financier with €500 million of the total €1.3 billion cost. Italy’s Thales Alenia Spazio company is the prime contractor and has coordinated 200 European firms which participated to the mission. The landing module, named "Schiaparelli" after the scientist who discovered the so-called "canals" of Mars, has been entirely built by ASI.

To test it in a hostile environment such as the one on Mars, Schiaparelli’s creator Dr. Francesca Esposito has organized three missions in the Sahara. "When we land on Mars," Dr. Esposito explained,

"we will be fully in the sand storm season. We know that in those conditions, the atmosphere is charged with electricity and generates many lightning strikes. We chose similar storms in the Sahara to understand what we could be facing."

A handful of spacecraft have been collecting measurements of the composition of Mars’ atmosphere for many years. The Trace Gas Orbiter, however, will do that with instruments that are 1,000 times more sensitive than those previously deployed. Traces of gases, in the parts per trillion, will be detectable.

The most anticipated of all the data the Trace Gas Orbiter will collect, would be the detection of methane. Even if it is mixed with sulfur dioxide, scientists point out, and volcanic activity, not life, is then the most likely source, that would be important in itself, indicating that Mars is still internally active. Water ice will be mapped down to a meter below the surface.

The 1,300-pound Schiaparelli lander, which will be the first craft to touch down during a dust storm, has a tiny meteorological station, and will make the first measurements of the planet’s electrical field. Three days before reaching Mars, the lander will break away from the orbiter, and head for the surface. Schiaparelli is equipped with three scientific experiments, to measure heat during its trip through the atmosphere, a descent camera, and the Dust characterisation, Risk assessment and Environment Analyser on Martian Surface (DREAMS), instrument, to carry out meteorological measurements.

Europe’s ExoMars 2016 mission has had a long and winding history. After NASA pulled out of the mission, due to planetary science budget cutbacks in 2012, the European Space Agency was able to engage Russia to provide the launch vehicles for the upcoming mission, and for the ambitious follow-on rover mission. For ESA, this saved their Mars program. For Russia, it was an opportunity to participate in a mission to a planet where they have not had success, despite many tries. But considering the world political situation, the joint missions also have an added significance.

Oleg Korablev, of Russia’s Space Research Institute, who is a principal investigator for the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite on ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, was quoted by Nature as saying, "The launch is crucial because it’s symbolic. It’s psychologically very important." ESA ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago added,

"Hopefully this will cement a way of doing things that becomes the modus operandi for when we do missions together."