Planets

ExoMars Lander Separates and Coasts to Red Planet

Piggyback-riding Schiaparelli spacecraft has successfully separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter mothership and prepares to land on Mars in 3 days.

The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander separated from its mothership on Sunday for a final, three-day solo journey to Mars.

Touchdown on the Red Planet, near where NASA's long-lived Opportunity rover is located, is targeted for 10:57 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, though it'll take nearly 10 minutes for radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, to reach Earth confirming a safe touchdown.

About 98 minutes before Schiaparelli lands, its mothership, known as Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO, will begin firing its engine to shed speed so it can be captured by Mars' gravity and sling itself into orbit.

TGO and the piggyback riding Schiaparelli blasted off seven months ago on the first of a two-part European-Russian mission known as ExoMars. NASA also is contributing to the mission.

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Flight controllers at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, had a few tense hours after Schiaparelli separated from the orbiter. Radio signals from TGO were missing key data about the spacecraft's status, ESA said.

A full telemetry link was restored at 2:42 p.m. EDT, ESA said, setting the stage for an engine burn later on Sunday to position the craft to put itself into orbit around Mars on Wednesday.

Schiaparelli will spend the next three days in hibernation to preserve its batteries. The lander, which will only operate for a few days, is designed to test procedures and equipment for a rover, due to launch in 2020, that will search for past or present-day life on Mars.

Image: A full-size model of the 1,300-pound ExoMars entry, descent and landing module, Schiaparelli, with its 39-foot diameter parachute deployed. Credit: ESA/S. Muihead

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