Sometime next week, about 33 million miles from here, an ambitious li'l spacecraft will plummet down to the surface of Mars. Hopefully.
In today's DNews special report, Trace Dominguez talks about the ExoMars expedition, which should go a long way toward telling us if there is life on the Red Planet.
The ExoMars mission is actually a two-parter. The first is an orbiter and lander launched by the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency back in March. That's the spacecraft approaching Mars now. In 2020, a followup mission will put another orbiter and lander in play.
The goal of both missions is to look for life on Mars, on the surface and from an orbital vantage point. The first lander is called the Schiaparelli, which will detach from the orbiter and begin a solo flight to Mars for the last leg of its journey. If all goes according to plan, the Schiaparelli will enter Mars' upper atmosphere at an incredible 13,000 miles per hour.
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The Schiaparelli will use heat shields, parachutes and a kind of cosmic airbag to make a soft landing on the surface. At that point, it becomes a temporary Mars weather station, measuring wind, air pressure, humidity and temperature at the landing site. The battery on the lander will only last two days, so it's got a limited lifespan. All the data it gathers will be beamed up to the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which by that point will have taken up position in high orbit over Mars.
The TGO will act as a relay station, beaming data from the lander back to Earth. But Mars' newest satellite has another job: It will map methane pockets in the Martian atmosphere, with the hope of pinpointing exactly where the gas is being produced. This may be the final key to unlocking the mystery of life on Mars, because methane is often signals the presence of microbial life.
All of this will set the stage for the second part of the mission, in 2020, when another orbiter-and-lander pair will use the data from the first expedition to hunt for specific biosignatures - chemicals that would be the first hard evidence of extraterrestrial life. Check out Trace's report for more details, or click on over to our report on Curiosity 2.0: NASA's Next Mars Rover.
-- Glenn McDonald
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ESA: ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli Mission
Space.com: European Spacecraft Prepares to Land on Mars Next Week
Science Alert: Two space agencies will attempt an historic landing on Mars next week