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How to Watch ExoMars Land on the Red Planet on Wednesday

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos team up to look for life on Mars.
Concept art of Schiaparelli lander’s descent. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

The possibility that there is life on Mars—either presently, or in its past—has captivated human imagination for centuries. Now the ExoMars 2016 mission, a joint project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, is poised to deliver new insights into this tantalizing mystery.

At the time of this writing, the spacecraft's two main modules, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, are making their final approach to the Red Planet separately, having parted ways on October 16 after a seven-month-long cruise from Earth.


Animation of the lander (distant) and the TGO (foreground) approach Mars. GIF: European Space Agency/Roscosmos/YouTube

On Wednesday, if all goes to plan, both components will arrive at their target destinations on Mars, and mission leads will finally be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. To follow along with the orbital insertion and landing, check out ESA's livestream of the event, which will be starting coverage at 6:00 AM EDT on October 19.

Currently, the TGO is scheduled to fire up its engines at 9:04 AM EDT Wednesday for an intense 134-minute burn that will slam on the spacecraft's brakes and allow it to maneuver into a highly elliptical orbit around Mars.

Animation of orbital insertion and landing. GIF: European Space Agency/Roscosmos/YouTube

Shortly afterwards, at 10:42 AM, the Schiaparelli lander is scheduled to hurtle into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, aiming for a landing site within the smooth, flat plains of Meridiani Planum, near the planet's equator.

Over the next six "minutes of terror," to channel the same language used in 2012 by the Mars Curiosity team, the lander will execute its entry, descent, and landing (EDL) sequence, all while reporting updates back to its mothership, the TGO.

For the first time in Martian exploration history, the landing is scheduled to coincide with the planet's dust storm season. This may result in a bumpier ride down to the surface, but it will also provide unprecedented insights into Mars's meteorological behavior.

Here's the breakdown of the module's EDL procedure: Schiaparelli will use atmospheric drag to slow its approach, while its heat shield protects the payload from exterior temperatures of around 1,500 degrees Celsius.


Atmospheric entry. GIF: European Space Agency/Roscosmos/YouTube

After three minutes, the lander will deploy its parachutes, and shortly after five minutes, it will ditch the parachutes and fire up its retrorockets.

Atmospheric entry. GIF: European Space Agency/Roscosmos/YouTube

When Schiaparelli has been guided down to about two meters above its landing site, the rockets will shut off and the lander will drop to the ground; the impact will be softened by a crushable framework designed to absorb the shock.

Parachute deployment. GIF: European Space Agency/Roscosmos/YouTube

Touchdown is estimated to be completed at 10:48 AM, with confirmation of success or failure following shortly afterwards. The entire EDL sequence will be closely monitored by several instruments including the TGO, ESA's Mars Express orbiter, and Earth-based observatories like the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune, India.

Even NASA's Opportunity rover will try to grab some shots of its new European neighbor as it parachutes down. Like some Martian riff on the Energizer Bunny, Opportunity has been actively roving around Meridiani Planum since it landed there in 2004. It might be close enough to watch on as the new lander make its descent.

If everything goes off without a hitch and Schiaparelli survives its dusty ride, it will be a significant achievement for both ESA and Roscosmos—two agencies that have been hitherto thwarted in their efforts to conduct surface operations from Mars.

ESA attempted to land the plucky Beagle 2 probe in 2003, but lost contact with the lander before it touched down. The Russian spaceflight community, meanwhile, has been trying to land working payloads on Mars since 1962. While multiple Russian probes have made it to the Martian surface, none of them have survived long enough to transmit substantial data.


NASA remains the leader in this realm of spaceflight, having safely delivered seven vehicles to Mars, most recently the Curiosity rover. In fact, NASA was originally ESA's main partner on ExoMars 2016, but budget cuts resulted in the agency backing out of the project in 2012, prompting ESA to open up collaborations to Roscosmos instead.

If Schiaparelli does stick its landing on Wednesday, it will be a long-awaited and hard-earned moment of triumph for the European and Russian space sectors, and a sign of the increasingly diverse cast of players in 21st century Martian exploration.

In light of their past misses, ESA and Roscosmos opted to hedge their bets and design this initial lander as primarily a demonstration of EDL technologies. As a result, Schiaparelli will be a very short-lived mission. Its batteries will run dry after only two to eight sols (the term for Martian days, which are 40 minutes longer than Earth days).

However, the lander is still equipped to send back some interesting data about its surroundings with its onboard DREAMS (Dust Characterization, Risk Assessment, and Environment Analyser on the Martian Surface) package. In addition to collecting temperature, pressure, wind velocity, and humidity readings, DREAMS will be the first instrument suite to study the planet's electric field for clues about its role in dust distribution and behavior.

You might be thinking, hey, what gives, I thought this thing was supposed to look for life on Mars? But in terms of rooting out potential alien microbeasties, the TGO is the MVP of the ExoMars 2016 mission. Provided it pulls off its orbital insertion on Wednesday, the spacecraft will hunker down and start combing through the Martian atmosphere for trace gases of water vapor, methane, ozone, carbon monoxide, and other substances that might hint at biological activity on the planet.


READ MORE: Searching for Life on Mars Is Really Hard

With a projected lifespan of at least six years, the TGO will also be instrumental in selecting the most promising landing site for the next phase of the ESA/Roscosmos partnership in space: The ExoMars 2020 rover mission. Scheduled for launch in July 2020, this vehicle will be equipped with a drill that can extract samples as deep as two meters into the Martian soil, where microbial life could conceivably be sheltering itself from the planet's harsh surface radiation.

It's an exciting concept, but its future depends heavily on how events unfold on Wednesday, as the ExoMars 2016 modules close in on the last leg of this historic voyage. Be sure to tune in.

Update: On Wednesday, the TGO successfully inserted itself into Mars orbit and is transmitting messages back to ESA/Roscosmos as planned. However, the fate of the Schiaparelli lander is unknown at this time. ESA has confirmed that the lander signaled when it had entered the Martian atmosphere, jettisoned its heat shield, and deployed its parachutes, but that contact was lost before landing. The status of the lander is being investigated by team leads who are expected to work through the night to re-establish communication with it. A press briefing covering updates on the lander will be held on ESA's livestream beginning at Thursday, October 20 at 10:00 AM CEST (4 AM EDT).

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