Mars set to welcome new robot citizen as Schiaparelli starts descent

17 Oct 2016

Illustration of Schiaparelli’s descent. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

ESA’s Mars probe, Schiaparelli, has successfully separated from its mothership just outside the Red Planet’s atmosphere, with plans to land on Wednesday (19 October) still on track.

Mars is due yet another robot this week after Schiaparelli was successfully dispatched from ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter and made a beeline for the Red Planet.

With the ExoMars mission brief to investigate the Martian environment and to demonstrate new technologies paving the way for future Mars sample return missions, Schiaparelli will be the first ESA spacecraft to touch down on the fourth rock from the Sun since the doomed Beagle 2 in 2003.


ESA lost all communications with Beagle 2 during its descent to Mars, with its location only discovered in 2015 when when new photos from an orbiter showed that it had reached the surface, but did not fully deploy and start communicating.

Hopes are high that Schiaparelli won’t suffer the same fate.

The 577kg probe separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter on Sunday (16 October), some 170m km across space.

It is now on a direct path to intercept the top of the Red Planet’s atmosphere on Wednesday. Schiaparelli is afforded just six minutes for its final slowdown from its current 21,000kph entry speed to ensure a “soft landing”.

ESA has no control over Schiaparelli’s descent now, with everything automated. As for the Trace Gas Orbiter, ESA performed a successful engine burn to deviate its path and avoid it following in after Schiaparelli.

“The burn went as planned,” said Micha Schmidt, deputy flight director for the mission. “Trace Gas Orbiter [is] in good shape and on track for [its] next big event: orbit insertion.”

A full-scale model of Schiaparelli. Image: ESA–S. Muirhead

A full-scale model of Schiaparelli. Image: ESA–S. Muirhead

All part of the ExoMars mission, Schiaparelli’s touchdown may appear to be the showpiece but it’s actually the Trace Gas Orbiter that’s the real star.

It will be relocated in the Martian atmosphere where it will perform detailed analysis of the planet’s composition, particularly looking for evidence of gases of possible biological importance, such as methane and its degradation products.

Its four scientific instruments will then spend the next five years – until 2022 – investigating where exactly the location and nature of sources that produce these gases is.

Schiaparelli’s main focus is the landing, which is when most of its scientific readings will be generated. This will supply ESA with valuable information ahead of its next rover mission in 2018.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic