Another probe to solve the Red Planet’s mysteries

March 22nd, 2016, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

The first of two joint ESA–Roscosmos missions to Mars began on 14 March 2016 on a seven-month journey to the Red Planet, where it will address unsolved mysteries of the planet’s atmosphere that could indicate present-day geological – or even biological – activity.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator lifted off on a Proton-M rocket operated by Russia’s Roscosmos Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The European Space Agency (ESA) is an intergovernmental organisation, created in 1975, with the mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space delivers benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

Lift off - another probe on its way to Mars (credit ESA)

Lift off – another probe on its way to Mars (credit ESA)

Signals from the spacecraft, received at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany via the Malindi ground tracking station in Kenya later that evening confirmed that the launch was successful and the spacecraft is in good health. The orbiter’s solar wings successfully unfolded and the craft is on its way to Mars.

“We’re not only looking forward to the world-class science data that this mission will return, but it is also significant in paving the way for the second ExoMars mission, which will move our expertise from in-orbit observations to surface and subsurface exploration of Mars,” says Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s director of science.

The TGO and Schiaparelli will travel to Mars together before separating on 16 October 2016 at a distance of 900 000 km from the planet.

On 19 October, Schiaparelli will enter the atmosphere at an altitude of about 121 km and a speed of nearly 21 000 km/h. In the three to four minutes that follow, it will be slowed by the increasing atmospheric drag, with the front shield of the aeroshell bearing the brunt of the heating. This will slowly melt and vaporise, allowing the absorbed heat to be carried away from the rest of the spacecraft.

Once the speed has decreased to around 1700 km/h Schiaparelli will be 11 km above the surface and a parachute will be deployed. The parachute canopy will unfurl in less than a second, and, 40 seconds later, allowing for oscillations to die down, the front shield of the aeroshell will be jettisoned. The parachute will slow Schiaparelli to around 250 km/h, and then the back half of the aeroshell, with the parachute attached to it, will also be jettisoned. It will be drawn rapidly away from Schiaparelli, which will now be completely free of the aeroshell that kept it safe enroute to Mars.

It will obtain the first measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that, combined with measurements of the concentration of atmospheric dust, will provide new insights into the role of electric forces on dust lifting – the trigger for dust storms.

On the same day, TGO will enter an elliptical four-day orbit around Mars, taking it from about 300 km at its nearest to around 96 000 km at its furthest point.

After a year of complex “aerobraking”, during which the spacecraft will use the planet’s atmosphere to lower its orbit slowly to a circular 400 km, its scientific mission to analyse rare gases in the atmosphere will begin.

Of particular interest is methane, which on Earth, points to active geological or biological processes. Investigations with observatories in space and on Earth have demonstrated the presence of small amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere that has been shown to vary with location and time. Since methane is short-lived on geological time scales, its presence implies the existence of an active, current source of methane. It is not clear, yet, whether the nature of that source is biological or chemical. Organisms on Earth release methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, such as the oxidation of certain minerals, also release methane.

One of the mission’s key goals is to follow up on the methane detection made by ESA’s Mars Express in 2004 to understand the processes at play in its generation and destruction, with an improved accuracy of three orders of magnitude over previous measurements.

TGO will also image features on the surface that may be related to trace-gas sources such as volcanoes. In addition, it will be able to detect buried water-ice deposits, which, along with locations identified as sources of the trace gases, could influence the choice of landing sites of future missions.

The orbiter will also act as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission, comprising a rover and stationary surface science platform, which is scheduled for launch in May 2018, arriving in early 2019.

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