Schiaparelli’s Mars landing will be a giant leap for Europe

European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme to determine if there’s life on Mars

The ESA’s ExoMars 2016 programme launces from Baikonur cosmodrome on March 14th. The rocket is carrying the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli module, which will land on the Red Planet on October 19th.  Photograph:  Stephane Corvaja/ESA

The ESA’s ExoMars 2016 programme launces from Baikonur cosmodrome on March 14th. The rocket is carrying the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli module, which will land on the Red Planet on October 19th. Photograph: Stephane Corvaja/ESA

 

On October 19th, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli module, named after a 19th-century Italian astronomer, will land on Mars. It will be a crucial step in the ESA’s ExoMars programme, designed to determine whether there is life on Mars.

It’s a joint project with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with a little help from US agency Nasa. Schiaparelli was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the desert steppes of Kazakhstan last March 14th.

The US has landed spacecraft on Mars eight times. Previous attempts by Europe and the former Soviet Union failed.

The ESA is not an EU agency, although the EU provides close to a quarter of its €5.25 billion annual budget. Only two of the ESA’s 22 member states (Norway and Switzerland) are not EU members, which will rise to three with Brexit. France, which also has a national space agency, CNES, is the biggest contributor. That is why the ESA’s headquarters are in Paris.

Next month’s landing on Mars “is very important to Europe, because it develops unique European skills,” says says Fabio Favata, who heads co-ordination at the directorate of science and robotic exploration.

Schiaparelli will pave the way for the 2020 mission, which will land a rover on Mars and drill for samples two metres below the surface of the red planet – something never before accomplished.

The reason, Favata explains, is that solar radiation sterilises the surface. “If there is or was life on Mars, it’s most likely underground. Bacteria thrive in places you wouldn’t imagine. There could be bacterial life. This is really the goal of the mission, to do an exo-biological investigation, which is why it’s called ExoMars.”

Scientists know there is water or ice below ground on Mars. “There could be sufficient amounts of non-ice, liquid water to sustain life,” Favata continues. “As a scientist, I say the only way to be sure is to go and find out.”

Human colony

It matters, because “Mars is the only place in the solar system that could possibly host a human colony,” says Favata. “The temperature is similar to Earth; a bit cold, but feasible. The thin atmosphere would provide a degree of shielding. Evidence from the Nasa rover shows there were significant amounts of water on the surface billions of years ago. It’s worth finding out what went wrong.”

In the 2014 science fiction film Interstellar, astronauts search for a replacement planet for an Earth rendered uninhabitable. Relocating earthlings “is not an immediate concern,” says Favata. “We should do a good job keeping this earth nice and clean.”

Before the Mars landing, ESA will retire the Rosetta orbiter. Named after the Egyptian stone which made it possible to decipher the hieroglyphics, Rosetta was launched in 2004 and rendezvoused with the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko 10 years later.

Rosetta soft-landed the Philae probe, a “hopper” the weight of a washing machine, on the comet nucleus two years ago. That too was a big first for Europe. Then Philae got stuck in a ditch, half a billion kilometres from Earth. Its battery went dead, then recharged. “We were so happy to get news back,” says Favata. “Nobody had any idea comets could be this weird.”

Rosetta flew alongside the comet as it headed towards the inner solar system, “hissing and spewing” when it approached the sun. Philae’s spectrometer measured dust and chemicals.

The Rosetta-comet tandem is now too far from the sun for solar panels to function. On September 30th, says Favata, “We will gently depose Rosetta on the comet surface. Under international regulations, we have to deactivate it. We’ll hold a little event in the ESA.”

Only 7 per cent of the ESA’s budget is devoted to manned space flight. At present, the International Space Station (ISS), which was built by the US space shuttle between 1998 and 2011, provides the only opportunity for European astronauts to fly. In low earth orbit, the ISS circles the Earth every 90 minutes, at an altitude of 400km.

In December, the ESA will present its long-term vision in a “European Exploration Envelope” to the EU council of ministers. It may include dreams of a “moon village” and a human landing on Mars, though concrete plans exist for neither.

Major barriers

The huge cost of manned space flight, and the dangers of radiation, are major barriers. “The moon missions lasted only eight to 10 days, so radiation wasn’t a problem,” says ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who flew with the Russian spaceship Mir in 1998 and on the ISS 10 years later.

Twelve astronauts fly on the ISS each year. The Russian Soyuz – the descendant of the craft that launched Sputnik in 1957 – has a capacity of only three at a time, so they are rotated in four groups of three. Over the next two years, France, Italy and Germany will have one flight each.

The US Orion probe provides the only other possibility of sending a European to space in the foreseeable future. Orion’s 2018 flight will be unmanned, and the 2021 flight is not likely to carry a European either. But by providing a service module for the second flight, ESA hopes to make itself indispensable.

“We hope it will provide flight opportunities for ESA astronauts in the future,” says Eyharts.

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