ESA’s ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter Prepares to Descend to the Red Planet

Schiaparelli module separates from Trace Gas Orbiter in preparation for orbit-raising maneuver 

This artist's concept from the European Space Agency (ESA) depicts the Trace Gas Orbiter and its entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, approaching Mars. The separation occurred on Oct. 16, 2016. The orbiter and the lander are components of the ExoMars 2016 mission of ESA and Roscosmos. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
This artist’s concept from the European Space Agency (ESA) depicts the Trace Gas Orbiter and its entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, approaching Mars. The separation occurred on Oct. 16, 2016. The orbiter and the lander are components of the ExoMars 2016 mission of ESA and Roscosmos.
Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Space news (space exploration: ExoMars 2016; orbit insertion and Schiaparelli module descent to surface) – Over 34 million miles (56 million kilometers) from Earth, preparing to descend to the surface of the Red Planet – 

This image show a fan-shaped deposit where a channel enters a crater. This suggests that water once flowed through the channel into a crater lake, depositing material in a similar manner to river deltas on Earth. Credits: NASA/ESA/medialab
This image shows a fan-shaped deposit where a channel enters a crater, which suggests to planetary scientists and geologists that water once flowed through the channel into a crater lake, depositing material in a similar manner to river deltas on Earth. Credits: NASA/ESA/medialab

NASA’s Curiosity rover and other Mars explorers are about to get a little help from their European and Russian brothers and sisters in the form of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). One of two joint space missions between Europe and Russia designed to explore Mars for signs that life once existed, the ExoMars TGO will investigate the environment, and blaze a path for a future 2020s mission to return a sample of Martian terrain for planetary scientists to examine in detail for signs of life. 

This stereo scene recorded by the Pancam on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Aug. 15, 2014, looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater marked with the rover's wheel tracks. It appears three-dimensional when seen through blue-red glasses with the red lens on the left. Credits: NASA/ESA
This stereo scene recorded by the Pancam on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Aug. 15, 2014, looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater marked with the rover’s wheel tracks. It appears three-dimensional when seen through blue-red glasses with the red lens on the left. Credits: NASA/ESA

The ExoMars TGO completed its final trajectory maneuver at 08.:45 GMT on October 14 and at 14:42 GMT/16:42 CEST today the Schiaparelli module separated from the orbiter. Tomorrow around 02:42 GMT/04:42 CEST the robotic spacecraft will conduct an orbit-raising maneuver in preparation for orbit insertion and the descent of Schiaparelli to the surface of Mars at around 14:48 GMT/16:48 CEST. The module is scheduled to land in a region of Mars near the equator called Meridiani Planum, where it will search for signs of life once having existed on the Red Planet. 

On Nov. 1, 2016, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed the impact site of Europe's Schiaparelli test lander, gaining the first color view of the site since the lander's Oct. 19, 2016, arrival. These cutouts from the observation cover three locations where parts of the spacecraft reached the ground: the lander module itself in the upper portion, the parachute and back shell at lower left, and the heat shield at lower right. The heat shield location was outside of the area covered in color. The scale bar of 10 meters (32.8 feet) applies to all three cutouts. Where the lander module struck the ground, dark radial patterns that extend from a dark spot are interpreted as "ejecta," or material thrown outward from the impact, which may have excavated a shallow crater. From the earlier image, it was not clear whether the relatively bright pixels and clusters of pixels scattered around the lander module's impact site are fragments of the module or image noise. Now it is clear that at least the four brightest spots near the impact are not noise. These bright spots are in the same location in the two images and have a white color, unusual for this region of Mars. The module may have broken up at impact, and some fragments might have been thrown outward like impact ejecta. At lower right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots appear identical in the Nov. 1 and Oct. 25 images, which were taken from different angles, so these spots are now interpreted as bright material, such as insulation layers, not glinting reflections. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL/Caltech
On Nov. 1, 2016, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observed the impact site of Europe’s Schiaparelli test lander, gaining the first color view of the site since the lander’s Oct. 19, 2016, arrival.
These cutouts from the observation cover three locations where parts of the spacecraft reached the ground: the lander module itself in the upper portion, the parachute and back shell at lower left, and the heat shield at lower right. The heat shield location was outside of the area covered in color. The scale bar of 10 meters (32.8 feet) applies to all three cutouts. Where the lander module struck the ground, dark radial patterns that extend from a dark spot are interpreted as “ejecta,” or material is thrown outward from the impact, which may have excavated a shallow crater. From the earlier image, it was not clear whether the relatively bright pixels and clusters of pixels scattered around the lander module’s impact site are fragments of the module or image noise. Now it is clear that at least the four brightest spots near the impact are not noise. These bright spots are in the same location in the two images and have a white color, unusual for this region of Mars. The module may have broken up at impact, and some fragments might have been thrown outward like impact ejecta. At lower right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots appear identical in the Nov. 1 and Oct. 25 images, which were taken from different angles, so these spots are now interpreted as bright material, such as insulation layers, not glinting reflections. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL/Caltech

Unfortunately, after the separation from the ExoMars TGO, the Schiaparelli module didn’t return telemetry (onboard status information) and only sent its carrier signal, which indicates it’s operational and waiting for commands. Mission control’s currently looking into this anomaly and a resolution to the problem’s expected within a few hours. You can check for updates to this on the ESA website here

This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event. This Oct. 25 observation shows three locations where hardware reached the ground, all within about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometer) of each other, as expected. The annotated version includes insets with six-fold enlargement of each of those three areas. Brightness is adjusted separately for each inset to best show the details of that part of the scene. North is about 7 degrees counterclockwise from straight up. The scale bars are in meters. At lower left is the parachute, adjacent to the back shell, which was its attachment point on the spacecraft. The parachute is much brighter than the Martian surface in this region. The smaller circular feature just south of the bright parachute is about the same size and shape as the back shell, (diameter of 7.9 feet or 2.4 meters). At upper right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located about where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots may be part of the heat shield, such as insulation material, or gleaming reflections of the afternoon sunlight. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event. This Oct. 25 observation shows three locations where hardware reached the ground, all within about 0.9 miles (1.5 kilometers) of each other, as expected. The annotated version includes insets with six-fold enlargement of each of those three areas. Brightness is adjusted separately for each inset to best show the details of that part of the scene. North is about 7 degrees counterclockwise from straight up. The scale bars are in meters.
At lower left is the parachute, adjacent to the back shell, which was its attachment point on the spacecraft. The parachute is much brighter than the Martian surface in this region. The smaller circular feature just south of the bright parachute is about the same size and shape as the back shell, (diameter of 7.9 feet or 2.4 meters).
At upper right are several bright features surrounded by dark radial impact patterns, located about where the heat shield was expected to impact. The bright spots may be part of the heat shield, such as insulation material, or gleaming reflections of the afternoon sunlight. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

What’s next for ExoMars?

If everything goes as planned, mission control should get an update from the ExoMars TGO on October 20, along with images of the surface of the planet as Schiaparelli descended to Mars. Continuous updates from the orbiter and module are expected through the duration of the ExoMars TGO mission. The events of the mission will also be live streamed on the ESA website here, along with reports on Twitter using the hashtag #ExoMars

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Learn more about the ExoMars 2016 TGO and the Schiaparelli module here

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Ancient Dust Falling onto Mar’s Atmosphere from Oort Cloud Comet Contains Metal Ions

Artist’s concept of Comet Siding Spring approaching Mars, shown with NASA’s orbiters preparing to make science observations of this unique encounter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s concept of Comet Siding Spring approaching Mars, shown with NASA’s orbiters preparing to make science observations of this unique encounter.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Comet Siding Spring sprinkles ancient metallic dust onto Mars atmosphere 

Space news (November 23, 2014) Comet Siding Spring seeds Mars with ancient metallic dust –

NASA and European space scientists recently observed a large comet flying past a planet for the first time. On October 19, 2014, three spacecraft, two American and one European, observed and gathered data as Comet Siding Spring flew past Mars. You can watch a YouTube video here of the artists rendering of the flyby.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring arrived from a very distant region of the solar system called the Oort Cloud. At around 2:27 p.m. EDT, this traveler from the outer regions of the solar system was only about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) from the Red Planet. It was at this time the comet was observed by three spacecraft as it deposited ancient debris on its atmosphere. This is the first direct measurement of dust from an Oort Cloud comet and an opportunity scientists and astronomers have been waiting for.

Five images of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring taken within a 35-minute period as it passed near Mars on Oct. 19, 2014, provide information about the size of the comet's nucleus. These observations by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest that the nucleus is smaller than 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) across.
Five images of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring taken within a 35-minute period as it passed near Mars on Oct. 19, 2014, provide information about the size of the comet’s nucleus. These observations by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest that the nucleus is smaller than 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) across.

Oort Cloud comets are thought to be leftover material from the birth of the solar system. Space scientists have an opportunity to test the present theory on the evolution of the solar system and possibly life on Earth. Theories persist that the ingredients of life could have been deposited on Mars in the distant past and then this life traveled to Earth and took root. The data collected during this encounter between Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring and Mars could help determine if this is possible.

Space scientists gathered information on the comet’s nucleus and the effects of the comet’s passage on the Martian atmosphere. The data was collected using NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, in conjunction with radar instruments on the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Mars Express.

These three plots are spectrograms showing the intensity of radar echo in the Martian far-northern ionosphere at three different times on Oct. 19 and 20, 2014. The middle plot reveals effects attributed to dust from a comet that passed near Mars that day. The data are from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS), an instrument on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.
These three plots are spectrograms showing the intensity of radar echo in the Martian
far-northern ionosphere at three different times on Oct. 19 and 20, 2014. The middle plot reveals effects attributed to dust from a comet that passed near Mars that day. The data are from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS), an instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

Data collected indicates comet debris containing sodium, iron and magnesium metal ions, along with at least five others, fell on the atmosphere of Mars as the comet flew past the planet. Readings indicate this added a temporary layer of strong metal ions to the ionosphere of Mars. Planetary and atmospheric space scientists are now studying whether this could have resulted in the development of a similar layer in the atmosphere of a primordial Earth. They also want to take a look at the possibility the sprinkling of comet dust in the atmosphere of Mars could have long-term consequences for the planet.

“This historic event allowed us to observe the details of this fast-moving Oort Cloud comet in a way never before possible using our existing Mars missions,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Observing the effects on Mars of the comet’s dust slamming into the upper atmosphere makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm’s way.”

NASA and European space scientists will now continue to monitor Mar’s atmosphere after the passage of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring for continued and additional effects and developments. They also hope to get further opportunities in the future to observe Oort Cloud comets flying past planets within the solar system.

For more information on MAVEN, MRO or any of NASA’s missions to Mars go here.

You can learn more about the Mars Express spacecraft here.

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