European Mars Lander, Orbiter to Make Tag Team Arrival at Red Planet

An artist's illustration of the European Space Agency's ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter (left) and Schiaparelli landing module as they approach Mars for an Oct. 19, 2016 arrival.
An artist's illustration of the European Space Agency's ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter (left) and Schiaparelli landing module as they approach Mars for an Oct. 19, 2016 arrival. (Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

After seven months of space travel, the European Schiaparelli spacecraft is only a couple days away from making its final descent to the surface of the Red Planet — and the stakes are high.

The Schiaparelli lander — part of the European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars 2016 mission to Mars — was launched into space with the Trace Gas Orbiter on March 14. In preparation for Schiaparelli's decent to Mars on Wednesday (Oct. 19), the Trace Gas Orbiter released the lander module Sunday (Oct. 16), with both craft now flying free in their daring approach to the Red Planet.

"They are now on a high-speed collision course with Mars, which is fine for the lander — it will stay on this path to make its controlled landing," Michel Denis, flight director at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, said in a statement from ESA. "However, to get the mothership (Trace Gas Orbiter) into orbit, we must make a small but vital adjustment on Oct. 17 to ensure it avoids the planet. And on Oct. 19 it must fire its engine at a precise time for 139 minutes to brake into orbit." [Photos: Europe's ExoMars Missions to Mars in Pictures]

What's more, ESA's mission control has only one chance to precisely time the orbiter's entry into orbit around the Red Planet, Denis added in the statement.

The European Space Agency's ExoMars project involves an orbiter, lander and rover, launched on two separate Proton rockets (infographic) (Image credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

Ready for Landing

The Trace Gas Orbiter will study methane   and other gases present in Mars' low atmosphere. This information will help scientists better understand any geological and biological processes on the Red Planet, including life.

As the Trace Gas Orbiter flies over Mars, the Schiaparelli lander will study the Martian surface in preparation for the life-hunting ExoMars rover mission scheduled to launch in 2020. The module is on track to land on Mars. If everything goes according to plan, it will touchdown in a region called Meridiani Planum, which is near the planet's equator. 

However, landing on the Red Planet is no easy feat. Last week, the Schiaparelli spacecraft received its landing commands, which include discharging the front and back aeroshells and deploying the craft's descent sensors, braking parachute and thrusters for a controlled landing. The lander will have only six minutes to slow down for a safe decent to Mars.

"This week, we uploaded the commands to fully charge the lander's batteries and prepare the orbiter's data-handling system as well as power and thruster system for separation and the subsequent trajectory tweak," Peter Schmitz, spacecraft operations manager, said in the statement on Friday (Oct .14). "Next week, before the big burn, we will place it into a special 'failop' mode to minimize any risk that an onboard glitch could interfere with the firing of the engine, which absolutely must happen at the planned time for us to get into orbit."

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.