ExoMars: Meet ESA's Next Robotic Mars Explorer

Artist's impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars.

Artist’s impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. – Source: ESA/ATG medialab

On Monday, March 14, 2016, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) robotic explorer, ExoMars, is slated to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Seven months later, ExoMars will arrive at the red planet and begin a number of scientific investigations that were designed to help determine whether live ever existed on Mars.

ExoMars Programme

ESA is establishing ExoMars as a two-part program (they spell it programme). The first is the part that’s launching in a few days: an orbiter with an entry, descent, and landing module. The second component is scheduled for a 2018 launch and will include a rover. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is a partner with the ESA for the entire program.

The goal of the program is to “demonstrate a number of essential flight and in-situ enabling technologies that are necessary for future exploration missions, such as an international Mars Sample Return mission” and to operate “a number of important scientific investigations”. The latter investigations are designed to search for both past and present life on Mars, understand how the water and geochemical environment varies across the planet, and sample Mars’s atmosphere.

This year’s mission includes an orbiter that will sample trace gases, as well as a landing module that study the environment at its landing site (it will be stationary once it lands). The lander even has a name: Schiaparelli. The name comes from the 17th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli.

Part of the entire program are a number of assessment tools to evaluate the performance of the various components of the mission, to aid in the design of future missions.

The planned 2018 mission will include a rover with a two-meter drill that will allow access deeper into the Martian soil than we have been able to get to before.

ExoMars 2016 in the Proton-M launcher at the launch pad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

ExoMars 2016 in the Proton-M launcher at the launch pad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Credit: ESA – B. Bethge

You can watch a livestream of the video from this page: Watch ExoMars Launch. Coverage begins at 08:30 GMT (04:30 am Eastern Daylight Time) on March 14, with launch scheduled at 09:31 GMT (05:30 am Eastern Daylight Time).

You can also get updates on the mission from the ESA_ExoMars Twitter feed:

Arrival at Mars is expected on October 19, 2016. For more information on the mission, check out ESA’s mission site.

Beagle 2 Found

On June 2nd, 2003, a Soyuz rocket with a Fregat upper stage blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. The rocket carried the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission instruments on an exciting journey to Mars. After spending less than a couple hours in a 200km (124 mile) parking orbit around Earth, the Fregat fired again, propelling the spacecraft towards a Mars transfer orbit. After three minutes, Mars Express separated from the Fregat and began its sixth month trek to the red planet.1

Artist's impression of Beagle 2 lander. -  ESA/Denman productions

Artist’s impression of Beagle 2 lander. –
ESA/Denman productions

Mars Express consisted of two main components: the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. The two components were to separate, with the former continuing to orbit, map and study the planet and the latter to drop into the thin Martian atmosphere, land, and conduct research from the surface. On Christmas morning in 2003, Beagle 2 dropped onto Mars’s surface and was never heard from again. Many attempts were made to communicate with the lander, but no response was forthcoming. By February 2004, with no communications received from the Beagle, it was officially declared lost. The Mars Express orbiter, however, was a success and has been capturing important data and wonderful images of Mars for over a decade now.

Fast forward twelve years to the end of 2014. Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express team, and other colleagues continue to sift through images produced by the HiRISE camera that’s aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Croon had requested images of the planned landing area through HiWish, a public suggestion page for HiRISE targets. Against any likely odds, Croon spotted something on the edge of the frame in one of the images he acquired. The contrast was low in the initial image and he wasn’t convinced his candidate was anything special. He requested additional imagery from the same location. In the new images, his candidate was a bright spot that appeared to move slightly between images. This was suggestive of being consistent with sunlight reflecting off of various parts of the Beagle 2. Some careful image clean-up work conducted by the HiRISE team provided even clearer views of the object in question, all but confirming that the Beagle 2 was finally found.

December 15, 2014 image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing what's believed to be the long-lost Beagle 2. -  NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona / Univ. of Leicester

December 15, 2014 image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing what’s believed to be the long-lost Beagle 2. –
NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona / Univ. of Leicester

Subsequent discussion and analysis of the images suggests that the Beagle 2 only partially deployed its petal-like solar panels. The communications antenna would only have been revealed after a full deployment, thus the suspected reason why Beagle 2 never sent a message confirming it’s landing.

Labelled grey-scale image identifies the lander, and its parachute and rear cover.

Labelled grey-scale image identifies the lander, and its parachute and rear cover. –
University of Leicester/ Beagle 2/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

While it’s still a mystery as to the cause of the lander failing to deploy completely after landing, it is much relief to the team members that have spent the past 12 years wondering what had ever become of their precious lander.

  1. The Fregat coasted off into interplanetary space.

Space Science in 2010

It’s time to start a new year (possibly a new decade, depending on how you want to look at it), but before we do that, let’s take a look back at what 2010 meant for the space sciences.

Let’s talk launches.
As far as lobbing the most things up into space this year, Russia takes the cake. There were 74 space launches in 2010, and close to half of those (31) were undertaken by Russia. The USA and China each had about half as many as Russia; 15. The European Space Agency sent up 6 rockets. Rounding out the remainder were India with 3, Japan with 2, and Israel and South Korea each with 1. Four launches in the world were unsuccessful.

The European Space Agency had a successful year. Their Cryosat-2 Earth explorer launched in April (following the failed launch of Cryosat-1 in 2005) is live and collecting data on how Earth’s ice fields are responding to global climate change.

The Planck orbiting observatory released its first all-sky scan data, and the produced image definitely ranks among the top for 2010 and beyond:

Planck all-sky survey

Click for full size. - Source: ESA - Planck

(For the above image labeled with reference points, check this link.)
You’re seeing the microwave sky as seen by Planck, which will continue in 2011 to map out the Cosmic Microwave Background.

ESA’s comet-chaser, Rosetta, performed a fly-by of the asteroid 21 Lutetia.

Closest fly-by of 21 Lutetia

Click for large version - Source: ESA / Rosetta

One of my favorite Rosetta images so far is of 21 Lutetia, but from a bit further away; however, from that distance a special treat comes into view:

21 Lutetia with Saturn in background.

Click to biggify - Source ESA / Rosetta

Saturn! And I can’t help to notice that this is just about what Saturn looks like on Earth through a Galileoscope.

I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of ESA’s contributions to space science in 2010, but we’ll have a chance to get to know what they’re up to over the next year, as we continue to cover Rosetta, Planck, Cryosat, and more!

NASA had a big year in 2010. President Obama laid out a new direction for NASA in February, and in April, detailed plans for future space exploration.

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” the president said. “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

I certainly hope to see it too!

NASA launched a new set of eyes to observe the Sun, in the SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory). Of course I have a pretty image to share from SDO:

Solar Eclipse Seen From SDO

Click for large version - Souce: NASA / SDO

This October 2010 image shows a solar eclipse from SDO’s vantage point.

Following last year’s bombing of the Moon (okay, not bombing, but they did punch a pretty nice dent into it with their Centaur impactor, sending a plume of debris 12 miles high after a 5,600 mph impact), NASA’s LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) released some new and promising data:

Scientists determined the soil in the moon’s shadowy craters is rich in useful materials, including water in the form of mostly pure ice crystals. Researchers also found the moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. By understanding the processes and environments that determine the delivery of water to the moon, where water ice is, and the active water cycle, future mission planners may be able to better determine which locations will have easily-accessible water. – NASA

Finally, NASA brought us the science (and unncessary hooplah) around some arsenic-munching bacteria. With rampant and irresponsible speculation following NASA’s pre-announcement teaser — “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” — release, many of us anxiously awaited the release of the actual report. Unfortunately, NASA didn’t announce the discovery of alien life. It also didn’t announce that it found life on Earth actively consuming arsenic — although many media reports said otherwise. These bacteria were collected from a lake and brought to a lab where biologists replaced some of its phosphorus with arsenic, to which it apparently managed to continue growing. Simply, all life as we know it uses phosphorus as a backbone of its DNA, so knowing that something could survive and grow with arsenic in place of phosphorus would re-write what we know about how life exists in the universe. However, at the time of this writing, there’s some serious criticism of the findings. Hopefully, it will be ironed out in 2011.

News also came from the Voyager mission, which has been unfolding our understanding of our solar system for more than 30 years. The Voyager 1 spacecraft reached a point on the edge of the solar system, where the solar wind no longer has any outward motion. The wind is no longer in Voyager 1’s sails, yet it continues on. (Expect more on the Voyager mission from this blog, as it’s probably deserves the most credit for getting me interested in space science.)

And that’s just a tiny sampling of what NASA is continuously kicking out.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had a bittersweet year.

Bitter: Their third planetary explorer Planet-C (Akatsuki) failed to insert itself into Venus’ orbit. The mission isn’t lost though, as they’ll get a re-do in six years when the craft re-approaches Venus. I’m sure JAXA will find ways to conduct science with Akatsuki in the meantime.

Sweet: They launched the first space-kite! IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) is the first project to demonstrate interplanetary travel using solar-sail technology. So far, IKAROS is working beautifully and may form as the basis for alternative means of getting around in the galaxy.

Sweet+: JAXA’s Hayabusa craft also completed the legwork on a mission that launched in 2003. The mission was to approach an asteroid, touch-down to collect particle samples, and then return them to Earth for analysis. While the mission ran into a number of complications, ultimately it was a very remarkable feat of engineering and technology. The spacecraft, and samples capsule, returned to Earth in June of 2010; with the spacecraft burning up on re-entry (as planned). In November, JAXA confirmed that most of the particles collected were in fact from the target asteroid, Itokawa. Further analysis is ongoing. The mission is an exciting example of what JAXA is capable of, and I recommend reading a full account of the entire mission.

The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), as mentioned before, took the lead on putting things into orbit. Roscosmos had 31 launches, more than the US and China combined. Here’s an explanatory image (a picture is worth a thousand words, ya’know), showing Russia’s space plans in 2010, and reality:

Russian Space Plans and Reality 2010

You'll want to click the image for the large version - RussianSpaceWeb.com

The private sector also began to get involved with spaceflight in a big way in 2010.
SpaceX conducted the first successful launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in early December 2010; the first time this has been accomplished by a private company.
Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo completed a number of manned glide tests, paving the way for SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbital craft.

While we’ve covered a number of major events in 2010, I’ve actually only scratched the surface. A single blog, let alone a single blog post, simply can’t cover everything that multi-billion dollar budgets, devoted to space sciences from dozens of countries around the globe, accomplish in a given year — and 2010 was a great one!

So to 2010, “Well done!”, and now on to 2011!