On October 18th, 2016 we learned about

Two new mechanized explorers make their final maneuvers to arrive at Mars

From the agency that brought you the adventures of Philae & Rosetta comes the solar system’s newest amazing duo, Trace Gas Orbiter & Schiaparelli! One’s an orbital satellite set watch over Mars from space, while the other’s a disk-shaped lander loaded with DREAMS! (Which isn’t as cheesy as it sounds, since the name is actually an acronym for the various scientific instruments packed onto Schiaparelli.) The two probes parted ways a few days ago, meaning the their scientific missions are about to begin, assuming the next 48 hours doesn’t break anything while they both park.

Setting down a saucer

After being brought up on rovers like Curiosity, the Schiaparelli lander may seem a bit unusual. When encased in its outer heat shields, the craft has a decidedly “flying saucer” look to it, right down to lacking wheels. The lander’s mission is instead based entirely in an area called Meridiani Planum, which is of interest due to a layer of iron oxide that was likely formed with ancient liquid water. With power to last between two to eight Martian days, the DREAMS instrument package will take readings of the area as much as possible before the lander shuts down.

If this is underwhelming, take heart in that it’s actually a bit of a prologue to another ExoMars mission slated for 2020. The European Space Agency and their Russian partners are already working on sending a larger, mobile rover to the Red Planet, and the Schiaparelli’s landing will provide reference data on how to safely drop robots on Mars. Schiaparelli’s descent started when it was detached from the Orbiter on October 16th, and will include breaking from a parachute as well as powered thrusters to slow down from peak speeds of 1,025 miles-per-hour. Once the lander is moving at a comfortable 4 miles-per-hour, it will be slowed enough to safely plop to the ground, dropping no more than six feet in an impact that should be safely absorbed by collapsible supports.

Speeding up for safety

Nobody wants to go to on a trip like this alone, and so the ExoMars Orbiter will be locking into an orbit in the next few days as well. The trajectory necessary to send the Schiaparelli lander on its way required that the Orbiter get quite close to Mars itself, and so before it is safely in orbit it will engage in a 134-minute burn of its engines. This should push it back out and away from the the gravitational pull of Mars and into a four-day, elliptical orbit. To add a bit of tension to the mission, and protect sensitive instruments and antennae, the Trace Gas Orbiter will need to engage in radio silence during its extended burn. Once in a stable orbit though, the Orbiter will draw solar power, allowing it to take readings and photographs of Mars for years to come, making the 2020 sequel to this mission all the more exciting.

Source: Schiaparelli: The ExoMars Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, ESA Robotic Exploration of Mars

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