March 13, 2019

ExoMars

Did life once exist on Mars? To find out, the European Space Agency (ESA) is sending 2 missions to the Red Planet, one already launched in 2016 and the other in 2020. The second of these missions will land a roving laboratory on its surface.

The ExoMars programme takes its name from the field of ‘exobiology’, the science that seeks to detect traces of extraterrestrial lifeforms. ExoMars is being pursued in partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, and comprises 2 successive missions, both launched by a Proton rocket.

On 19 October 2016, the first ExoMars mission inserted a satellite into Mars orbit to study the planet’s atmosphere and evolution, while also providing a platform to relay telecommunications to Earth for later surface operations. Called Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), this satellite is studying trace gases like methane or other hydrocarbons in Mars’ atmosphere after a long aerobraking phase to circularize its orbit.

Just before insertion into Mars orbit, TGO released an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM) that descended by parachute for a planned soft landing on the planet’s surface. ESA named this module Schiaparelli after the Italian astronomer who famously mapped Mars’ surface features in the 19th century. One of the module’s sensors became saturated during the descent, leading to the landing sequence being interrupted while it was still some 4 km from the surface. The demonstrator nevertheless continued transmitting until impact and data from all sensors were collected and relayed back to Earth for processing and analysis.

The ExoMars 2020 mission will land a Russian platform and a European rover called Rosalind Franklin on Mars. The platform will carry Russian and European instruments that will acquire measurements of the planet’s environment for 1 Mars year (687 Earth days), while the 310-kg rover will have 9 scientific instruments to study the soil and subsoil. Able to drill down to a depth of 2 metres, this rover will collect and analyse samples that have not been exposed to the radiation and oxidizers that would otherwise destroy organic materials.

CNES and French research laboratories are responsible for 2 instruments on the European rover: WISDOM, a radar to study and characterize the structure of the subsoil; and MicroOmega, a spectrometer capable of imaging in the visible and infrared to study samples’ mineral composition. France is also contributing to 3 instruments—MOMA, RLS and CLUPI—being developed by other ESA member nations, while CNES worked with ESA on entry and descent studies for the 2016 lander module and is supplying visual navigation software for the 2020 rover.