Destination: The Red Planet.
Seven months after setting off, Europe’s ExoMars mission should make history later on Wednesday.
Having successfully separated from its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership on Sunday, the space probe Schiaparelli is due to touch down, its descent slowed by a parachute.
But landing on Mars is notoriously difficult and there will be a few sweaty palms at the European Space Agency’s Mission Control in Darmstadt, Germany.
This is the first European bid to put a craft on Mars since a doomed attempt more than a decade ago. The British-led Beagle 2 craft was dropped off by Europe’s orbiter Mars Express in 2003 – but failed to make contact after its scheduled touchdown. At the time it was dubbed “a heroic failure”.
This time though things should be different.
The disc-shaped 577-kg lander is named after Giovanni Schiaparelli, the Italian astronomer who in 1877 began mapping the topography of Mars.
The TGO spacecraft on which the Schiaparelli lander travelled to Mars, carries an atmospheric probe to study trace gases such as methane around the planet.
Scientists believe that methane, a chemical that on Earth is strongly tied to life, could stem from micro-organisms that either became extinct millions of years ago and left gas frozen below the planet’s surface, or that some methane-producing organisms still survive.
The ExoMars programme, searching for signs of past and present life on Mars, is a collaboration with the Russian space agency. It is also a test run for landing a Mars rover four years from now, equipped with a drill for an in-depth look into whether anyone else is out there.
But getting today’s landing right comes first, as our correspondent Claudio Rosmino explained.
“Six minutes of terror. That is how European Space Agency engineers describe the time it will take for Schiaparelli to descend to the surface of the red planet. Six minutes of radio silence in which the probe will work in automatic mode.
“It will enter the atmosphere of Mars at a speed of 21,000 kilometres per hour and its thermal shield needs to resist a temperature of 1,700 degrees. After that a parachute will be launched and then the retro thrusters will reduce the speed of descent until touchdown.
“The landing zone is very interesting because there’s a chance that, billions of years ago, there was a lake or a sea.
“Schiaparelli will be limited to sending data about Mars atmosphere. The most important part of the mission is testing the landing technique to be used later in the second ExoMars mission in 2020.”