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ESA Schiaparelli Lander to Begin Descent on Mars

Oct 17, 2016 04:19 AM EDT
ExoMars 2016 Launch
Europe’s Schiaparelli Mars lander has successfully separated from its mothership and is on target to land on the Red Planet.
(Photo : David Ducros/ESA via Getty Images)

The ExoMars Schiaparelli lander has successfully detached from its mothership and is ready to descend on the Red Planet.

The 577-kilogram spacecraft separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on Sunday at 2:42 p.m. GMT, BBC reports. The lander will have below six minutes to reduce its 21,000km/h entry speed to zero to make a soft touchdown on Mars' surface on Wednesday, Oct. 19.

The European-Russian ExoMars mission is comprised of the Schiaparelli demonstrator module and the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which launched from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan on March 14 on board a Proton rocket.

The Schiaparelli lander is a demonstrator module specifically designed to demonstrate the European Space Agency's (ESA) entry, descent, and landing technologies. It will also help monitor aspects of Martian weather

The probe is set to land on Mars' Meridiani Planum, coinciding with the planet's dust storm season, which will give scientists the opportunity to study the planet's dust winds. Schiaparelli's descent is fully automated and is expected to take under six minutes. A heatshield will push up against the Martian atmosphere to reduce entry speed, and a big parachute and a cluster of rockets will bring the spacecraft to a near standstill above the surface.

The TGO has also successfully completed an orbit raising maneuver to avoid following on behind the module and making a collision course with Mars. The engine burn will put the orbiter several hundred kilometers above the planet ahead of its planned orbit insertion on Oct. 19. According to ESA, signal with the TGO was reacquired after the engine burn. The orbiter is tasked to study the Martian gases, specifically methane, water vapor and nitrogen dioxide.

ESA is hoping that the Schiaparelli module will have a better fate than its predecessor, the UK-led Beagle 2, which lost contact after separating from the Mars Express orbiter in 2003.

A live webcast of the ExoMars Schiaparelli module and TGO landing is available on ESA's website.

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