April 26th, 2018

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter sends its first color picture of Mars – and it’s spectacular

An image from the CaSSIS camera on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter shows the rim of Korolev Crater on Mars. Click on the image for a larger version. (ESA / Roscosmos / CaSSIS Image)

The first color image to come from a camera aboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in its Mars-mapping orbit shows the ice-coated rim of Korolev Crater in sharply shadowed detail.

“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was, given the lighting conditions,” Antoine Pommerol, a member of the science team for the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System, said today in a news release. “It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a mission jointly supported by the European and Russian space agencies, is built to measure the composition of Mars’ thin atmosphere with unprecedented accuracy. Its top task is to look for methane and other trace gases that could hint at biological or geological activity.

The car-sized probe was launched in 2016, and after a series of aerobraking maneuvers, it reached its final 250-mile-high orbit around Mars this month. Its spectrometers began “sniffing” atmospheric molecules just last weekend.

May 26th, 2017

Schiaparelli landing investigation completed

Artist impression of the Schiaparelli module with parachute deployed. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab

Artist impression of the Schiaparelli module with parachute deployed. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab

The inquiry into the crash-landing of the ExoMars Schiaparelli module has concluded that conflicting information in the onboard computer caused the descent sequence to end prematurely.

The Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module separated from its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, as planned on 16 October last year, and coasted towards Mars for three days.

Much of the six-minute descent on 19 October went as expected: the module entered the atmosphere correctly, with the heatshield protecting it at supersonic speeds. Sensors on the front and back shields collected useful scientific and engineering data on the atmosphere and heatshield.

December 20th, 2016

Skimming an Alien Atmosphere

Artist’s impression of the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars.

Artist’s impression of the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars.

After the smooth arrival of ESA’s latest Mars orbiter, mission controllers are now preparing it for the ultimate challenge: dipping into the Red Planet’s atmosphere to reach its final orbit.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is on a multiyear mission to understand the tiny amounts of methane and other gases in Mars’ atmosphere that could be evidence for possible biological or geological activity.

Following its long journey from Earth, the orbiter fired its main engine on 19 October to brake sufficiently for capture by the planet’s gravity.

It entered a highly elliptical orbit where its altitude varies between about 250 km and 98 000 km, with each circuit taking about four Earth days.

Ultimately, however, the science goals and its role as a data relay for surface rovers mean the craft must lower itself into a near-circular orbit at just 400 km altitude, with each orbit taking about two hours.

December 2nd, 2016

Europe presses ahead with Mars rover

Europe will push ahead with its plan to put a UK-assembled robotic rover on the surface of Mars in 2021.

Research ministers meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, have agreed to stump up the outstanding €436m euros needed to take the project through to completion.

The mission is late and is costing far more than originally envisaged, prompting fears that European Space Agency member states might abandon it.

But the ministers have emphatically reaffirmed their commitment to it.

They have also said that European participation in the International Space Station (ISS) should run until at least 2024, bringing Esa into line with its partners on the orbiting laboratory – the US, Russia, Japan and Canada.

This will open new opportunities for European astronauts to visit the station, and it was announced here that Italian Luca Parmitano has been proposed to take up a tour in 2019.

The Ministerial Council was convened to set the policies, programmes and funding for ESA over the next three to five years.

November 29th, 2016

Here Are Our First Exciting Glimpses of Mars From Europe’s New Orbiter

ExoMars created its first 3D image of Martian topography from two stereo images captured by the Trace Gas Orbiter. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE

ExoMars created its first 3D image of Martian topography from two stereo images captured by the Trace Gas Orbiter. Image: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE

In case Schiaparelli’s crash-landing left you thinking the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission was a bust, rest assured it wasn’t. The mission’s scientific workhorse—its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)—is performing beautifully, as evidenced by the first images and splashes of data ESA has now received back from the Red Planet.

In keeping with ExoMars’ goal of discovering signs of life, the TGO’s agenda is to produce a detailed inventory of rare gases in Mars’ lower atmosphere. These include water vapor, nitrogen dioxide, acetylene, and most importantly, methane, which is broken apart by sunlight. If methane is present in Martian air, something—either a biological or geological process—is resupplying it.

The TGO is also equipped with state-of-the-art imaging equipment. If it does sniff something interesting, ESA will take detailed photos of the corresponding spot on the surface, so that a future rover can pay a visit.

October 27th, 2016

Closer Look at Schiaparelli Impact Site on Mars

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This Oct. 25, 2016, image shows the area where the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli test lander reached the surface of Mars, with magnified insets of three sites where components of the spacecraft hit the ground. It is the first view of the site from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken after the Oct. 19, 2016, landing event.

The Schiaparelli test lander was one component of ESA’s ExoMars 2016 project, which placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into orbit around Mars on the same arrival date.

This HiRISE observation adds information to what was learned from observation of the same area on Oct. 20 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera (CTX). Of these two cameras, CTX covers more area and HiRISE shows more detail. A portion of the HiRISE field of view also provides color information. The impact scene was not within that portion for the Oct. 25 observation, but an observation with different pointing to add color and stereo information is planned.

This Oct. 25 observation shows three locations where hardware reached the ground, all within about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometer) of each other, as expected. The annotated version includes insets with six-fold enlargement of each of those three areas. Brightness is adjusted separately for each inset to best show the details of that part of the scene. North is about 7 degrees counterclockwise from straight up. The scale bars are in meters.

October 25th, 2016

Computing glitch may have doomed Mars lander

Illustration showing the moment the Schiaparelli lander was to jettison its back shell and parachute and ignite its descent engines. A preliminary analysis suggests this stage happened prematurely, likely the result of a software error. (Image: ESA/ATG Medialab)

Illustration showing the moment the Schiaparelli lander was to jettison its back shell and parachute and ignite its descent engines. A preliminary analysis suggests this stage happened prematurely, likely the result of a software error. (Image: ESA/ATG Medialab)

Photos of a huge circle of churned-up Martian soil leave few doubts: a European Space Agency (ESA) probe that was supposed to test landing technology on Mars crashed into the red planet instead, and may have exploded on impact.

Mars-probe loss is a chance for ESA to learn

The events of 19 October may be painful for ESA scientists to recall, but they will now have to relive them over and over again in computer simulations. The lander, called Schiaparelli, was part of ESA’s ExoMars mission, which is being conducted jointly with the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos. It was a prelude to a planned 2020 mission, when researchers aim to land a much larger scientific station and rover on Mars, which will drill up to 2-metres down to look for signs of ancient life in the planet’s soil. Figuring out Schiaparelli’s faults and rectifying them is a priority, says Jorge Vago, project scientist for ExoMars. “That’s super important. I think it’s on everybody’s mind.”

October 21st, 2016

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter views Schiaparelli landing site

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed to be related to ESA’s ExoMars Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing technology demonstrator module.

Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere at 14:42 GMT on 19 October for its 6-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown. Data recorded by its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, are currently being analysed to understand what happened during the descent sequence.

In the meantime, the low-resolution CTX camera on-board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took pictures of the expected touchdown site in Meridiani Planum on 20 October as part of a planned imaging campaign.

Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. The relatively large size of the feature would then arise from disturbed surface material. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis.

October 20th, 2016

ExoMars lander may have crashed on Mars after parachute and retrorocket problems

The European space probe Schiaparelli may have crash landed on Mars after suffering problems releasing its parachute and firing retrorockets to slow its descent, it emerged today.

At a briefing this morning, the European Space Agency (ESA) said there had been technical failings in the final 30 seconds before landing.

Schiaparelli’s touchdown was supposed to prove that the ESA had the capability to land on Mars ahead of the second part of the ExoMars mission to place a rover on the planet in 2020, which will drill into the surface looking for signs of life on the Red Planet.

But there were fears that the problems could impact future funding. European ministers will meet later this year to decide whether to give the green light to the 2020 mission.

Andrea Acoomazzo, ESA Spacecraft Operations Manager, said that everything had gone to plan for the first five and a half minutes of descent but then events ‘diverged from what was expected’ during ejection of the parachute and heat shield.

October 19th, 2016

ExoMars TGO reaches Mars orbit while EDM situation under assessment

ExoMars approaching Mars

ExoMars approaching Mars

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) of ESA’s ExoMars 2016 has successfully performed the long 139-minute burn required to be captured by Mars and entered an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet, while contact has not yet been confirmed with the mission’s test lander from the surface.

TGO’s Mars orbit Insertion burn lasted from 13:05 to 15:24 GMT on 19 October, reducing the spacecraft’s speed and direction by more than 1.5 km/s. The TGO is now on its planned orbit around Mars. European Space Agency teams at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, continue to monitor the good health of their second orbiter around Mars, which joins the 13-year old Mars Express.

The ESOC teams are trying to confirm contact with the Entry, Descent & Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), Schiaparelli, which entered the Martian atmosphere some 107 minutes after TGO started its own orbit insertion manoeuvre.