ExoMars Set To Enter Red Planet’s Orbit In A Week

In a joint endeavour between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, the ExoMars mission will enter orbit around the Red Planet on 19 October. The two-part mission began its first leg earlier this year in March when they launched the ExoMars TGO and Schiaparelli missions to investigate the methane mystery on Mars. The Schiaparelli is an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM). The purpose of this mission is to determine the source of methane production on the red planet. There are trace elements of methane present in the atmosphere which leads scientists to believe that the methane produced there might be a result of biological activity.

The Red Planet
The Red Planet. Image Courtesy: Gizmodo

The methane production on Mars could be an indicator of life on it. The  methane traces on Mars have a life span of 400 years due to being broken down by UV light from the sun. The methane on earth is produced due to the presence of life on Earth. The traces of methane on Mars have been observed before, however they were seasonal in nature and concentrations were found in abundance, varying with location and time. These observations have led scientists to conclude that there is an active source of methane that can replenish the supply. Of course, one must be warned against expecting to see a three-legged, green Martian. The exobiological organisms that we speak of, are mostly on the microscopic level and are thought to live deep below the surface of the planet.

The team at ESA are not getting into this with rose-coloured glasses, though. While it is possible that there might be exobiological organisms producing the methane gas, there is also the possibility that this methane was formed long ago, and has crystallised into icy methane hydrates or clathrates which are emitting the methane traces only now.

The TGO at Mars
The TGO at Mars Image via esa.int

The TGO and the Schiaparelli are the two instruments used in this mission. The TGO will orbit the planet while the Schiaparelli Lander will make a landing on Mars.

The Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) command was uploaded at 7.30 EST. On reaching Mars, the TGO mission will be in a highly elliptical orbit. The TGO will perform a critical engine burn which will allow it to slow down sufficiently in order to insert itself into Mars’ orbit. The TGO plans to stay in Mars’ orbit for the next year by employing aerobraking techniques. The resulting drag will allow it to slow down so that it can orbit the Red Planet.

TGO will map the spatial and temporal distribution of the atmospheric methane to help distinguish between the different scenarios, to a much higher sensitivity than any previous or current mission at Mars.

TGO’s main objectives are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. Schiaparelli will test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars.

The 2020 rover that will carry a drill and a suite of instruments dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry research. The 2016 TGO will act as a relay for the 2020 mission.

Learn more about the TGO and Schiaparelli Lander.