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.

Soyuz Spacecraft Returns to Earth: Year-In-Space Mission Ends

The image below shows the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft’s return to Earth, on March 2nd, 2016. Inside are NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov. Both Kelly and Kornienko spent almost an entire year in space aboard the International Space Station, in a research effort to understand the health impacts of long-term spaceflight.

Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft, floating back to Earth

Soyuz TMA-18M, floating back to Earth – Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Click the image for an even gorgeous-er huge version.

Isn’t that image simply amazing?

The Phobos-Grunt Has (Crash) Landed

Phobos-Grunt Mission Poster
[Phobos-Grunt official mission poster. Click for large size.]
(Image Credit: Credit: Roscosmos ( Russian Federal Space Agency)/IKI)

As expected, the failed Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt came screaming back to Earth, breaking apart during its collision with our atmosphere, and landing somewhere near 700 miles West of Chile in the Pacific Ocean yesterday.

While the Russian Federal Space Agency, commonly referred to as Roscosmos, has not yet reported any visual observations of debris impact, they were able to note the point it disappeared from orbit.

The 13+ ton craft, most of its weight owing to the onboard fuel that would have taken it to Mars’ moon, Phobos, was one of the larger to return to Earth after failure.  It isn’t currently known — and it may well never be — how much of it burned up in the atmosphere and how much made it to the Pacific — and then, how large those pieces were and what they were composed of. Tthe best case scenario is that all of the fuel burned up in the atmosphere.

Now, the focus will be on what went wrong, which is turning into a drama of its own with Russian officials suggesting that its failure was the result of Russian “anti-heroes” or a secret US military facility in Alaska (HAARP, I presume) purposely disabling the craft from the ground.

Follow-Up on Phobos-Grunt

Following up on a previous story about the failed Russian space probe, Phobos-Grunt, all hope of reviving the craft has been eliminated. Phobos-Grunt is expected to fall back to Earth by the end of this month. The only real questions remaining are when, where, and what might survive re-entry.


Phobos-Grunt / Image Credit: ESA

It is not uncommon for spacecraft to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, even uncontrolled (which to a degree, they all are). Disintegration upon re-entry is one of the space industry’s most popular disposal methods for decommissioned and defunct satellites and spacecraft. However, they generally aren’t carrying the amount of fuel that Phobos-Grunt has on board. Most of its 13 tons of weight is fuel — hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide stored in aluminium tanks. Since fuel tanks are generally specifically designed to withstand extreme pressure and heat, they often survive re-entry; however, the Phobos-Grunt tanks were constructed out of aluminium, which is not only cheaper, but has a lower melting temperature than other common materials. Aside from the fuel, there is also a small amount — less than 10 micrograms — of radioactive Cobalt-57, but such a small amount does not pose any significant problems.

According to Holger Krag, deputy head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, the chances of anyone seeing the re-entry, let alone be impacted by any of the debris from Phobos-Grunt, is very low.  With more than 70% of our planet covered in water,  odds are that any debris surviving re-entry will end up in an ocean.

“Relax,” Krag said. “The likelihood of somebody being hit is enormously low. It is way smaller than to be struck by lightning. If you have a thunderstorm above your city you would also not worry too much.”

To sort of sum it all up, Phobos-Grunt will soon be toast. If you’re very lucky, you might see a spectacular light show. It will probably not land on your head.

Though, there were some positive aspects to come from the failure. For example, the re-entry is a new target for the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, which is “an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space”.  The more debris we add to Earth orbit, the more important it is to be able to track and deal with the potentially-devastating material; so any “practice” that Phobos-Grunt will provide would be useful.

Additionally, the failure of Phobos-Grunt provided an opportunity for various nations and agencies, as well as professionals and amateurs, to work together on trying to revive the craft, track its orbit, and now chart its re-entry. Information was shared between all of the interested parties and there was much collaboration and cooperation; all of which is important if we are to have a global recognition of the importance of space exploration and the global initiative to work together to continue exploring.

Hope Dims For Phobos-Grunt

It’s being reported that the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, is publicly recognizing the dwindling possibility to regain contact and control of its latest Mars (Mars’ moon, Phobos, actually) mission, Phobos-Grunt. Phobos-Grunt launched on November 9 and made it into Earth orbit; however, it failed to fire its engines that would have sent it on its way to Mars’ moon Phobos.

According to the BBC:

Engineers have tried in vain to contact the spacecraft, and Roscosmos deputy head Vitaliy Davydov said the situation now looked very grim.

“One should be a realist,” he was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.

Later, another Russian news agency, Interfax, quoted Davydov as saying that Phobos-Grunt might fall from orbit anytime between late December 2011 and February 2012.

This is unfortunate news on a couple of fronts. First, losing the mission to Phobos is tremendously disappointing. The research that would have been gained from that mission would have been remarkable. The second reason this situation is particularly unfortunate is that it’s not quite known what kind of consequences Earth might face when Phobos-Grunt drops out of orbit and comes crashing back down to Earth. It is currently holding quite a bit of fuel — the fuel that would have taken it to Phobos — and the design of fuel tanks often allows them to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere more successfully than other spacecraft components.

To be certain, both professionals and amateurs alike will be keeping their eyes on Phobos-Grunt and crunching the numbers to try and ascertain what might happen within the next few months if — and it is seemingly highly likely at this point — it comes back down to Earth.

Any developments will be reported here.

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!