Russia and the EU launch new spacecraft to seek evidence of methane – and presence of life – on Mars.
After a seven-month journey, a lander on a European-led mission to Mars has left its mother ship and headed towards the Red Planet’s surface with the aim of searching for signs of past and present life there.
The disc-shaped Schiaparelli lander separated from the spacecraft Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) at 14:42GMT on Sunday, starting a three-day descent to the surface of the planet to test technologies in what the European Space Agency hopes will be its first ever Mars rover.
Signals received from spacecraft, which is to orbit Mars and sniff out gases around the planet, did not at first contain data on the lander’s onboard status, but the space agency later said that the link with the craft had been restored.
“On the side of [Schiaparelli] I would say that the separation was a success,” Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at the space agency, told Reuters news agency at the Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, after it had been confirmed that the lander had split from its spacecraft.
Schiaparelli, part of the European-Russian ExoMars programme, represents only the second European attempt to land a craft on Mars, after a failed mission by Britain’s Beagle 2 in 2003.
Landing on Mars, Earth’s neighbour some 56 million kilometres away, is a notoriously difficult task that has given trouble to both Russian and US space agencies’ efforts.
But a seemingly hostile environment has not detracted from the allure of Mars, with US President Barack Obama recently highlighting an ambition to send people to the planet by the 2030s.
Elon Musk’s aerospace firm SpaceX is developing a massive rocket and capsule to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars with the ultimate goal of colonising the planet, with the tycoon saying he would like to launch the first crew as early as 2024.
The primary goal of ExoMars is to find out whether life has ever existed on the Red Planet. The current spacecraft, TGO, carries an atmospheric probe to study trace gases such as methane around the planet.
Scientists believe that methane, a chemical that on Earth is strongly tied to life, could stem from micro-organisms that either became extinct millions of years ago and left gas frozen below the planet’s surface, or that some methane-producing organisms still survive.
Schiaparelli is scheduled to reach the atmosphere of Mars on Wednesday, using a parachute and thrusters to slow its descent from a speed of nearly 21,000 kilometres an hour, before touching down on the planet’s surface. Entry, descent and landing will take less than six minutes.
The second part of the ExoMars mission, delayed to 2020 from 2018, will deliver a European rover to the surface of Mars. It will be the first with the ability to both move across the planet’s surface and drill into the ground to collect and analyse samples.
The cost of the ExoMars mission to the European Space Agency, including the second part due in 2020, is expected to be about $1.4bn.