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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