ESA's Woerner: "I'm Happy" with ExoMars Even Though Fate of Lander Still Unknown

ESA's Woerner: "I'm Happy" with ExoMars Even Though Fate of Lander Still Unknown

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner painted a highly positive picture of ESA’s ExoMars 2016 mission this morning even though the agency still does not know the fate of one of the two spacecraft — the Schiaparelli lander.  Stressing that Schiaparelli was a test, Woerner focused on the successful insertion into orbit of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that not only will study the Martian atmosphere, but serve as a communications relay for a planned rover ESA will launch in 2020. 

ExoMars is a cooperative program between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos.  NASA originally planned to partner with ESA, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA’s portion, so ESA turned to Russia instead.  A total of four spacecraft — two launched in 2016 and two in 2020 (delayed from 2018) — comprise the program.

TGO and Schiaparelli are ExoMars 2016.  They were launched in March 2016 and traveled together to Mars. They separated on October 16, three days before Mars arrival, for the final legs of their journeys. They reached Mars yesterday.  TGO went into orbit as planned, but contact with Schiaparelli was lost before it reached the surface.

Artist’s illustration of the separation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from the Schiaparelli lander.  Image credit: ESA

TGO has two functions: to study traces gases, especially methane, in
the Martian atmosphere, that could provide clues as to whether life ever
existed there, and to serve as a communications relay for a Russian lander and
European rover that will be launched in 2020.  The lander and rover are ExoMars 2020.

Woerner and other ESA officials speaking at a press conference at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstat, Germany this morning stressed that TGO is the “cornerstone” of both ExoMars 2016 and ExoMars 2020 and it is fine.  Schiaparelli was a test of entry, descent and landing technologies that will be needed for ExoMars 2020 and although its ultimate fate is not yet determined, it did successfully enter the Martian atmosphere and proceed through initial phases of descent, providing important data.

From Woerner’s point of view, the overall mission is TGO plus the landing test and he is satisfied:  “I’m happy…. It’s a big success.”   

Andrea Accomazzo, head of ESA’s Solar and Planetary Missions Division, explained that they are still analyzing the large amount of engineering data Schiaparelli transmitted to TGO during its descent.  What they know now is that Schiaparelli, also referred to as EDM — entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module — entered the Martian atmosphere, the heatshield worked “perfectly,” and the parachutes deployed successfully following a pre-programmed set of commands. 

However, just before the parachutes were to be ejected, about 50 seconds before it would have reached the surface, the spacecraft “did not behave exactly as expected,” he said.  At least some of Schiaparelli’s retrorockets fired, but for only 3-4 seconds and the lander’s ground radar was activated.  What happened next is undetermined, although he is confident that eventually “we will have no doubt” about what occurred.

Schiaparelli is somewhere on the surface of Mars now, whether or not it is operating.   ExoMars Program Manager Don McCoy said that its batteries should last between four and 10-12 Martian days (sols).  Although TGO could receive data from Schiaparelli during its descent, now that it is in orbit, it is not in a position to hear the lander.  Instead, an older ESA orbiter, Mars Express, and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will listen for signals that Schiaparelli is programmed to transmit at specific times.

As noted, ExoMars 2016 is only the first part of the ExoMars program.  The second part is the Russian lander/European rover still under development.  Woerner said that a review of the 2020 mission is scheduled for next week and acknowledged that ESA already was planning to ask its member states for more money to finish it, on the order of 300 million Euros.  He is optimistic that they will view ExoMars 2016 as a success just as he does and provide the necessary resources to complete the program.

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