Schiaparelli Lander Prepares for Touchdown on Mars

From Scientific American:

Compared to the pioneering Rosetta mission, landing on Mars is a more conventional feat. But for ESA, the stakes are high, given that the tally of successful landings on Mars currently stands at NASA 7, Europe 0.

Operating on the planet’s surface would also be a first for Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, which is a partner in the mission — and which plans to partake in future joint Europe–Russia missions, including a 2020 rover landing on Mars. The Soviet Union came close to success in 1971 with the Mars 3 probe, which failed just 20 seconds after landing on the surface.

Given the importance of the landing, the descent through Mars’s thin atmosphere will represent “our own six minutes of terror”, says Francesca Ferri, a planetary scientist at the University of Padua in Italy, referencing a line coined to describe the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012. “Around 50% of the landings on Mars haven’t succeeded, so it’s not easy. But I’m feeling pretty confident,” says Ferri, who leads an experiment to study atmospheric data from Schiaparelli’s descent.

The ESA-designed Schiaparelli lander, which is about the size of a Smart car, represents one part of the ExoMars mission thatlaunched from Kazakhstan in March on a Russian rocket. The other half is an orbiter—also designed by ESA—that will analyse gases in Mars’s atmosphere, starting from December 2017.

Schiaparelli separated from its mothership on October 16. Its main job is to demonstrate landing technology, although it will also have a short science mission, studying the dust storms of the red planet for as long as its batteries last, probably between two and four days.

The lander is touching down in dust-storm season—and NASA scientists have warned that Mars could see a rare planet-wide storm this year, which would make for challenging landing conditions …

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