European Spacecraft Attempts Mars Landing

The moment of truth for Europe’s interplanetary ambitions arrived this morning at 10:42 a.m. Eastern time, when the Schiaparelli lander entered Mars’s atmosphere to attempt a nail-biting six-minute descent to the surface. After bleeding off speed and altitude in the thin Martian atmosphere with a heat shield, parachutes and rocket thrusters, the kiddie-pool-sized Schiaparelli spacecraft was set to plop down on the surface atop a honeycomb-like cushion, which is similar to a car’s crumple zones and designed to protect the craft’s instruments. If successful, this Mars landing will be the first for the European Space Agency (ESA), and the ninth ever achieved on the Red Planet. (NASA is responsible for seven of the previous landings, with the Soviet Union’s Mars-3 lander accounting for the eighth.)

For mission controllers, however, any news of Schiaparelli’s reckoning was delayed by at least nine minutes and 47 seconds—the minimal time it takes the lander’s signals to travel from Mars to Earth. Schiaparelli “woke up” on schedule this morning shortly before its encounter, sending out ultra-high-wavelength radio signals that were received by the Giant Meterwave Telescope array in Pune, India. As Schiaparelli entered and descended through the atmosphere, its radio signal suggested the spacecraft was on-track for a safe, routine landing, but the signal was abruptly lost shortly before touchdown, leaving the Schiaparelli’s fate to be determined later in the day by orbiters passing over the planned landing site.

ESA’s Mars Express orbiter tracked Schiaparelli’s signal during the landing attempt, but will only transmit its observations to Earth about 90 minutes afterward. A half-hour after after Schiaparelli’s attempted landing, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will take its turn, attempting to open a two-way communication channel with the lander; that data should arrive at Earth shortly after 12:30 Eastern time. If nothing conclusive emerges from those observations, further information may only arrive on October 20th, from observations gathered by Schiaparelli’s mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which entered Mars’s orbit just as the lander started its descent. After settling into orbit and monitoring Schiaparelli, TGO will begin preparations for a multi-year mission to search for atmospheric signs of geological activity or even life upon Mars. Both lander and orbiter are part of the joint European-Russian ExoMars program.

The Schiaparelli lander is named for the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who included references to potential water-filled canali (“channels”) in his 19th-century maps of Mars. Its target is a flat, relatively rock-free expanse of Meridiani Planum, an equatorial plain covered with signs of ancient, flowing water not far from where NASA’s Opportunity rover landed in 2004.

Despite its namesake and potentially fertile surroundings, this lander’s primary purpose is less about exploration and more about demonstrating that ESA’s technology is capable of landing payloads on Mars. Even so, Schiaparelli snapped more than a dozen black-and-white images of the Martian surface during its descent, and carries a modest scientific payload to measure the planet’s electromagnetic field as well as the temperature, pressure, humidity, opacity and winds of its atmosphere. Collectively, the lander’s instrument package could shed new light on how Mars’s famed dust storms arise and propagate across the entire planet.

But the lander’s likely planetfall under what look to be clear rather than dusty skies means it may never deliver on that potential. It is not destined to be a lasting weather station that can watch the planet’s seasonal dust storms come and go. Unlike NASA’s long-lived rovers, which are powered by sunlight and radioisotopes, Schiaparelli runs on chemical batteries—meaning its mission is likely to span just a few days. ESA’s next foray onto the Martian surface will not occur until 2021, when its ExoMars rover jointly developed with Russia is slated to arrive for a far more robust and enduring investigation of Mars. That future mission will include experiments designed to look for signs of present or past life, and a two-meter drill for obtaining samples from beneath the planet’s radiation-scoured topsoil.

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