NASA Rover on Mars May Have Ringside Seat to Europe's ExoMars Mission
This infographic explains the planned landing of ExoMars 2016.
Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

The European Space Agency's ExoMars 2016 mission is set to launch Monday (March 14) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and it just might have a surprise in store for NASA's Opportunity rover already at the Red Planet. 

ExoMars is a joint endeavor between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos space agency, and comprises the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator. Turns out that NASA's Opportunity rover might have a ringside seat to view Schiaparelli's descent and landing.

Schiaparelli is designed to demonstrate a range of technologies to enable a controlled landing on Mars in preparation for future missions. That lander will separate from the TGO on Oct. 16 and land on Mars on Oct. 19. [How the ExoMars Double Mission Works (Infographic)]

Schiaparelli's primary landing site is a plain known as Meridiani Planum. This area interests scientists because it contains an ancient layer of hematite, an iron oxide that, on Earth, almost always forms in an environment containing liquid water.

The ExoMars 2016 entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, also known as Schiaparelli, will touch down on Meridiani Planum, a relatively smooth, flat region on Mars, on October 19, 2016. The lowest areas on this map are shown in green, while the highest areas are dark brown. The large crater on the right (East) of the image is Endeavour, which is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Opportunity has been studying its western rim since 2011.
The ExoMars 2016 entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, also known as Schiaparelli, will touch down on Meridiani Planum, a relatively smooth, flat region on Mars, on October 19, 2016. The lowest areas on this map are shown in green, while the highest areas are dark brown. The large crater on the right (East) of the image is Endeavour, which is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Opportunity has been studying its western rim since 2011.
Credit: ESA/IRSPS/TAS-I

The veteran Opportunity rover landed in Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25, 2004.

Opportunity is roughly 790 miles (1,275 kilometers) away from the center of Schiaparelli’s landing ellipse.

There has been some contact between the Opportunity rover planners and ExoMars scientists on whether or not the U.S. rover would be in a position to capture the descent. "We will do it if possible," notes Ray Arvidson of Washington University in Saint Louis. He is Mars Exploration Rover Deputy Principal Investigator.

Meridiani Planum is of interest to scientists because it contains an ancient layer of hematite, an iron oxide that, on Earth, almost always forms in an environment containing liquid water.

Scenic view from NASA’s Opportunity rover.
Scenic view from NASA’s Opportunity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity remains busy on Mars.

"We have been spending a lot of time mapping Knudsen Ridge, one of the southern walls bounding Marathon Valley," Arvidson told Inside Outer Space. There are interesting structures with tan or dark rocks interwoven with recessive bright red rocks, he adds, with the latter perhaps carrying the smectite signature.”

Smectite is a clay mineral that yields information about the ancient environment of Mars.

Opportunity is exploring Marathon Valley on the rim of Endeavour crater. The rover is up on the very steep slopes of Knudsen Ridge.

Opportunity image from Front Hazcam, Sol 4297.
Opportunity image from Front Hazcam, Sol 4297.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity has been investigating the western rim of a 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) crater named Endeavour since 2011. This winter, it is examining rocks on the southern side of Marathon Valley which slices through Endeavor Crater's rim from west to east. This is a location where observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have mapped concentrations of clay minerals that would have formed under wet, non-acidic conditions.

Arvidson says that as the spring season arrives, Opportunity controllers will finish investigations at the current location with the rover wheeling to the northern side of Marathon Valley to finish up characterization of the dark boulder field.

"Still very interesting and unique geology for Marathon Valley," Arvidson explains, "with the valley floor red rocks very unusual."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin's 2013 book "Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration" published by National Geographic with a new updated paperback version released in May 2015. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.