ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter preparing to drop lander onto the Red Planet
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) is approaching Mars after a journey spanning more than six months, and is set to launch a lander onto the surface of the planet.
The probe, which forms part of an ambitious mission from the European Space Agency (ESA), is designed to search for evidence of life on Mars.
The project has been in the works since 2008, originally with NASA’s involvement, but the American space agency had to pull out in 2012 due to lack of funding.
TGO launched on 14 March this year and has almost completed its 500 million kilometre voyage across the solar system. It is due to deploy the small Schiaparelli lander on 16 October.
Three days later, TGO will brake into an elliptical orbit around Mars while Schiaparelli enters the planet’s atmosphere and parachutes down to the surface.
The 2.4m wide disc-shaped craft will aim for Meridiani Planum, a flat region near the equator.
Its main mission is to pave the way for ExoMars Rover, a high-tech six-wheeled laboratory equipped with life-seeking instruments to be launched in 2020.
Schiaparelli will test the rover’s Russian-designed descent and landing system - which employs a heat shield, parachute and retro rockets.
It also carries a small instrument package that will record wind speed, humidity, pressure and temperature at the landing site - and take electric field measurements that may shed light on how Martian dust storms are triggered.
Orbiter flight director Michel Denis said: “Uploading the command sequences is a milestone that was achieved following a great deal of intense cooperation between the mission control team and industry specialists.”
The spacecraft is being controlled from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. However many of its systems are automatic and not dependent on direct commands from Earth.
Schiaparelli’s command sequences are time-saved to ensure the lander can carry out its mission even when out of contact.
During the landing, the command signals will eject the front and back aeroshells, operate descent sensors, deploy the braking parachute, and activate three groups of hydrazine retro rockets.
At around two metres above the surface, Schiaparelli will hover briefly before cutting its retro thrusters and dropping to the ground.
Once down, it is programmed to keep its science instruments running for at least two days.
TGO will play a key role in the ExoMars mission from orbit as it looks for rare gases in the planet’s atmosphere, including methane, which can only come from an active source.
The probe will tell scientists whether Martian methane is most likely to have a geological or biological origin.
On Earth, the gas is chiefly generated by billions of bacteria, many of which live in the guts of animals such as cows. But it can also be released by the breakdown of organic molecules deep underground or volcanic activity.
The two-stage £1bn joint European and Russian ExoMars mission is equipped to uncover the first clear evidence of past or present life on Mars, if it exists.
Scientists have not ruled out the possibility that bugs may survive beneath the planet’s radiation-baked surface.
In August, China’s space agency released the first images of a competing rover that it plans to send to Mars within the next five years.
A recent study also claimed that autonomous robots capable of walking, swimming and climbing, in order to replicate the movements of insects, birds, animals and humans would take the place of traditional landers on future space exploration missions.