At the beginning of December the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has imaged the Martian moon Phobos as part of a second set of test science measurements made since it arrived at the Red Planet on 19 October.
The Trace Gas Orbiter, a joint endeavour between ESA and Roscosmos, arrived at Mars on 19 October. Its elliptical orbit takes it from 230–310 km above the surface to around 98 000 km every 4.2 days.
It spent the last two orbits during 20–28 November testing its four science instruments for the first time since arrival, and making important calibration measurements.
TGO’s main goal is to make a detailed inventory of rare gases that make up less than 1% of the atmosphere’s volume, including methane, water vapour, nitrogen dioxide and acetylene. The instruments also coordinated observations with ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as they will in the future.
“We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment, and this first impression gives a fantastic preview of what’s to come when we start collecting data for real at the end of next year,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s TGO Project Scientist.
ExoMars is one of the robotic missions identified in the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) Global Exploration Roadmap. This mission will expand our knowledge about the red planet and eventually the formation of the solar system. Furthermore, the mission will demonstrate technologies and enhance experience and knowledge that will significantly contribute to the development of capabilities for future robotic and human exploration missions.
What happened to Schiaparelli?
A full investigation is now underway to identify the cause of the problems encountered by Schiaparelli, the ExoMars lander, in the latter stages of its six-minute descent.
A large volume of data recovered from the Mars lander shows that the atmospheric entry and associated braking occurred exactly as expected. The parachute deployed normally at an altitude of 12 km and a speed of 1730 km/h. The vehicle’s heatshield, having served its purpose, was released at an altitude of 7.8 km. However, an erroneous measurement of the altitude triggered a premature release of the parachute and the backshell, a brief firing of the braking thrusters and finally activation of the on-ground systems as if Schiaparelli had already landed. In reality, the vehicle was still at an altitude of around 3.7 km.
“This is still a very preliminary conclusion of our technical investigations,” says David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration. “The full picture will be provided in early 2017 by the future report of an external independent inquiry board, which is now being set up.”
A set of images of Schiaparelli and its hardware components was taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, on 1 November. The high-resolution images showed parts of the ExoMars Schiaparelli module and its landing site in colour on the Red Planet. It is believed that the lander reached the Martian surface at more than 500 km/h.
ExoMars is a clear example of how international cooperation between space agencies is vital to space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and paves the way to future human missions to the Red Planet.
ExoMars 2020 mission on track
ESA concluded a council meeting at ministerial level in Lucerne, Switzerland, on 1-2 December 2016. At this summit, Ministers in charge of space matters have declared support for ESA exploration activities, now integrated into a single programme.
Amongst others, ESA will complete the ExoMars rover mission, implemented in cooperation with Roscosmos and with critical contributions from NASA, and return to Mars in 2020. This second ExoMars mission will bring a laboratory to Mars, and a rover capable of drilling deep into the surface, which will help advance in the search of past or present life.
Furthermore, ESA will join its partners in extending International Space Station operations until 2024 and implement a series of exciting missions. This includes landing the ExoMars rover on the Red Planet in 2020, propelling NASA’s first Orion crewed mission to the Moon and landing European technology on the Moon with the Russian-led Luna Resource mission.