On Wednesday, if all goes as planned, Mars will have two more robots from Earth prying away at its secrets, including a European-built flying saucer that will attempt to land on the ground.
The saucer, known as Schiaparelli, is aiming to touch down in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars, located 2 degrees south of the equator, at around 10:48 a.m. ET (14:48 GMT). The European Space Agency, which is overseeing the mission, has tried this once before, with disappointing results. Flight controllers lost contact with its spacecraft, known as Beagle-2, after touchdown on Dec. 25, 2003.
More than 11 years later, images from one of the five orbiters circling Mars showed that Beagle did indeed survive the landing, but some of it solar panels didn't open, blocking the communications antenna line of sight to Earth.
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Schiaparelli won't have that problem. The lander, which is about 8 feet wide and 5.4 feet tall, doesn't have solar panels. It will rely only its internal battery, which limits its operational time on Mars to just a few days.
That's long enough for engineers to collect information about the tricky ride through Mars' thin air and what they hope will be a gentle landing on the planet's dusty face. Schiaparelli is intended as a test run for an ambitious, follow-on rover that will search for past or present life on Mars.