European Mars lander begins descent to Red Planet's surface

After a seven-month journey from Earth, Schiaparelli has separated from its spacecraft and has begun its descent to the Martian surface, where it is expected to touch down on Wednesday.

ESA/D. Ducros/AP
This artist’s impression provided by the European Space Agency depicts the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, center, from the Trace Gas Orbiter and heading for Mars.

On Monday, the European Schiaparelli lander is descending to the surface of Mars. The 1,272-pound vehicle is expected to touch down on Wednesday after gliding through the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere at 13,000 mph, before being slowed by atmospheric drag and then a parachute, before thrusters finally bring it to a soft landing.

Schiaparelli, named for the Italian astronomer who made the first crude maps of Mars in the 19th century, will photograph Mars and carry out scientific measurements on its surface for only a few days, until its battery runs dry. Its most critical mission is to test the technology that will allow the European Space Agency (ESA) to send a sophisticated rover to Mars in 2020, this one with the capability to drill and with instruments to study the chemistry of the planet's surface.

So far, only the United States has successfully landed operational rovers on Mars: most recently Curiosity, a self-driving cart loaded up with lasers, cameras, and detectors that has been traversing the Red Planet in the name of science since 2012.

Schiaparelli is part of the ExoMars program, a collaboration between the ESA and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. It is Europe’s second attempt at landing a craft on Mars, our neighboring planet. The first try was Britain's Beagle 2 mission in 2003, which lost contact with Earth during descent and then disappeared for 12 years. It was spotted again just three miles from its landing site in January 2015 in photos collected by a NASA orbiter.

The ESA released Schiaparelli from its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft at 14:42 GMT on Sunday, after the pair had traveled for seven months. The TGO will orbit Mars to analyze the gases in its atmosphere. Methane, which has been found in the northern hemisphere of Mars, is of particular interest to the ESA. This is because on Earth methane in the atmosphere is produced largely by living organisms. Since methane on Mars is thought to have a short lifespan, as the ESA points out, its presence in the atmosphere could mean that it was produced relatively recently, perhaps by microorganisms living deep beneath the Martian surface.

Another possibility is that long-extinct microbes produced the chemical, leaving it frozen in the planet’s surface, which is leaking it into the atmosphere. It's also possible that the methane is being released by geological activity.

If ESA's current mission goes well, the next phase of ExoMars includes dropping off a rover on Mars that will be able to move across the planet's rocky surface and to drill into the ground to collect and analyze samples. The target date for that landing is in 2020.

This story uses material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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