Space Sunday: Europe on Mars and a Brit in space

When discussing Mars exploration, it is easy to forget that NASA, the US space agency is far from alone. Both Europe and India are currently operating vehicles in orbit around Mars, while in 2004, the European Space Agency became only the third agency in the world to attempt a landing on Mars, when the British built Beagle 2  mission separated from its Mars Express parent craft but unfortunately failed to safely arrive on the surface of Mars.

Mars Express has gone on to be one of the most successful Mars orbital mission on record, carrying out a range of duties similar to those of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO),  which it preceded to Mars by some two years. Now approaching the end of its 12th year in operation around the planet, Mars Express continues to return a wealth of data to Earth and also functions as a back-up communications relay for the two NASA rovers currently operating on the surface of the Red Planet.

An artist's impression of Beagle 2 on Mars (image: European Space Agency)

An artist’s impression of Beagle 2 on Mars (image: European Space Agency)

Quite what happened to Beagle 2 remained unknown until early in 2015. It had been thought the tiny lander, just 1 metre (39 inches) in diameter but packing a huge amount of science capabilities into it, had been lost as a result of burning up in Mars’ tenuous atmosphere or as a result of its parachute landing system or air bags failing. However, as I reported in January 2015,  images captured by NASA’s MRO revealed Beagle 2 had landed quite safely, but one of its solar panels failed to deploy, preventing the craft from communicating with Mars Express and Earth.

In 2018, ESA, working in conjunction with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, plan to overcome Beagle 2’s failure to gather science from the surface of Mars with a rover vehicle called ExoMars Rover, part of an ambitious 2-phase mission itself entitled “ExoMars”, and which commences in 2016.

ESA's ExoMars TGO: due for launch in March 2016, part of a 2-phase mission to search for direct evidence of life, past or present, on Mars

ESA’s ExoMars TGO: due for launch in March 2016, part of a 2-phase mission to search for direct evidence of life, past or present, on Mars. In this artist’s impression, the capsule-like Schiaparelli has already been detached from the circular base of the vehicle (image: European Space Agency)

The first part of the mission will commence in March 216 with the launch of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), a telecommunications relay orbiter and atmospheric gas analyser mission. This will arrive in orbit around Mars in December 2016 and will proceed to map the sources of methane on Mars, as well as analyse and study other trace gases. Methane is of particular interest to scientists its likely origin is either present-day microbial life existing somewhere under the surface of the planet, or the result of geological activity. Confirmation that either is the cause would be of significant scientific benefit.

Whilst in operation in Mars obit, TGO will deploy Schiaparelli, an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDLM). This is intended to test some of the key technologies needed to safety see a rover-carrying lander onto the surface of Mars, such as the ability to control touchdown orientation and velocity. Most uniquely, the landing will take place during the Martian dust storm season, presenting scientist with the opportunity to characterise a dust-loaded atmosphere during entry and descent, and to conduct surface measurements associated with a dust-rich environment.

The Advanced Prototype EoMars Rover undergoing remote deployment testing in 2015

The Advanced Prototype ExoMars Rover undergoing remote deployment testing in 2015 (image: European Space Agency)

The 2018 ExoMars Rover mission, although yet to be finalised, is primarily designed to find evidence of microbial life, past or present, under the Martian surface. It is provisionally scheduled for launch in May 2018, although this may be delayed until August 2020, around the time NASA Mars 2020 rover mission is due to fly.

The ExoMars vehicle is somewhat larger than NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover, but at some 207 kg (456 lb), is about one-third the mass of Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rover.  A unique aspect to ExoMars Rover is that it will carry a drilling system aboard which, for the first time, will allow samples to be obtained from almost 2 metres (6.5 ft) below the surface of Mars. The rover is expected to operate for around 6-7 months, but could remain operational for much longer. During that time, it should cover a distance of around 4 km (2.5 mi), after landing in early 2019.

The four proposed landing sites for ExoMars Rover. The colours on the map represent the relative elevations of surface features on Mars. White / Red refer to the highest elevation, such as the Tharsis Bulge and the great volcanoes to the north-west, and blue the low-lying regions, such as the far northern latitudes and the great impact basin of Hellas in the south-east, which likely caused the Tharsis Bulge upwelling

The four proposed landing sites for ExoMars Rover. The colours on the map represent the relative elevations of surface features on Mars. White / Red refer to the highest elevation, such as the Tharsis Bulge and the great volcanoes to the north-west, and blue the low-lying regions, such as the far northern latitudes and the great impact basin of Hellas in the south-east, which likely caused the Tharsis Bulge upwelling

If all goes according to plan, ExMars Rover should land on Oxia Planum earlier in 2019, a region in the northern hemisphere of Mars, which contains one of the largest exposures of ancient rocks on the planet, around 3.9 billion years old and clay-rich, indicating that water once played a role here. Volcanic activity may have covered early clays and other aqueous deposits, potentially preserving any biosignatures present from both solar radiation and the oxidising effects of Mars’ atmosphere, the rocks and clays only having again been exposed by erosion within the last few hundred million years.

The rover will employ a suite of ten science instruments as a part of its efforts to detect direct evidence of life having arisen on Mars, including the Pasteur laboratory, which like the SAM and ChemMin laboratories on Curiosity will be carried inside the body of the rover. The remaining instruments, like the drilling system, will be mounted on the exterior of the rover.

Ground Control to Major Tim….

On December 15th 2015, a Soyuz craft will lift-off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying with it  crew of three on their way to start a five-month mission aboard the International Space Station. One of those flying aboard the Soyuz will be Timothy Peake, a former British Army helicopter pilot, and technically only the second Briton to fly in space after Helen Sharman’s historic flight in 1991.

“Second”, because although Michael Foale, Pier Sellers and Nicholas Patrick were all born in England, they all hold dual British-American citizenship and flew as American astronauts (hence the US flags on their flight / pressure / space suits in official NASA photos).

Tim Peake: 256 experiments to perform, and meals from Heston

Tim Peake: 256 experiments to perform, and meals from Heston Blumenthal

Peake was selected as one of the first six people to be admitted into a new European Astronaut Corps training programme in 2008, and commenced training in 2009. He has served as a part of the NASA aquanaut undersea mission NEEMO-16 (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations), aboard the Aquarius Reef Base, located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary during 2012, and also served on the back-up crew for the Expedition 44 crew deployment to the ISS.

“Major Tim” – a nickname derived from his Army rank and a play on the character from David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recently gave a press conference in the UK where he expressed his delight at flying to the ISS and at the prospect of enjoy at gastronomic as well as astronomic experience: not only has the a traditional British Christmas Pudding been flown to the station, but a special selection of meals has been put together for him by UK school children and celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.

The latter aren’t entirely gimmicks. With space agencies looking towards longer and longer duration spaceflights, they’re also considering ways and meals of improving a crew’s psychological well-being. Have meals that offer a combination of dietary balance, a wholesome look and good taste is an important part of that.

For the mission, Peake will be joined by by US astronaut Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, a veteran of five missions to the Russian MIR space station and the ISS. During the mission – although by no means certain – Peake may undertake an EVA space walk.

And as I’ve mentioned Space Oddity, I’ll close with the coolest rendition of the song, direct from space courtesy of the legendary Chris Hadfield.

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