Space Sunday: landings, launches and tiny worlds

An artist's impression of ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter approaching Mars on October 16, 2016, having just released the Schiaparelli lander demonstrator
An artist’s impression of ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter approaching Mars on October 16, 2016, having just released the Schiaparelli lander demonstrator. Credit: ESA

Sunday, October 16th, 2016, marked the first in two important dates during the month for the European Space Agency. It  was at 14:42 UT that the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) separated from its parent orbiter, the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) as the two entered the final three days of their approach to Mars.

TGO / Schiaparelli  form the first part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, which represents an ambitious expansion of European studies of Mars by placing TGO in orbit around Mars where it will study the atmosphere, then following it in 2020 with a rover mission, for which Schiaparelli is a pre-cursor.

It’s been a mission a long time in the making – in the case of the still-to-fly rover mission, more than a decade has already passed since its inception, was a certain amount of the delay due to NASA. Originally, both TGO and rover were to launch aboard Russian vehicles, but a 2009 agreement with the US space agency resulted in a comprehensive re-design of both missions, which were to fly aboard / as part of US vehicles / missions (the TGO science was to have flown on NASA’s Mars Science Orbiter (MSO) mission, for example). However, NASA unilaterally cancelled the agreement at the start of 2012 due to cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope, forcing a further complete redesign of both TGO and rover vehicle.

Schiaparelli should touch down in the Meridiani Planum during the dust storm season
Schiaparelli should touch down in the Meridiani Planum during the dust storm season

October 16th was an important milestone for the mission, as it saw TGO release the Schiaparelli  demonstrator in what was a textbook operation, watched via telemetry at mission control, with a nine-and-a-half-minute time delay separating events from receipt of data. It was  a single line of that data that indicated separation had been successful.

Schiaparelli will not proceed ahead of TGO, their paths slowly diverging, until Wednesday, October 19th, when TGO will enter its preliminary orbit around Mars. Over the  course of the next year, that orbit will be further and further refined until the vehicle is correctly positioned to commence its 5-year primary mission. For this, TGO will perform detailed, remote observations of the Martian atmosphere, searching for evidence of gases which may be possible biological importance, such as methane and its degradation products. At the same time, TGO will continue to image Mars, and act as a communications for both Schiaparelli and for the 2020 rover vehicle. 

At the same time as TGO enters that preliminary orbit, Schiaparelli will commence a much more hazardous journey to the surface of Mars. This will commence with the 2.4 metre (8ft) diameter EDM slamming into the Martian atmosphere at 21,000 km/h (13,000 mph; 5.8 km/s / 3.6 mi/s), where it will use a heat shield and atmospheric friction to rapidly decelerate.

Once through the upper reaches of the Martian atmosphere, the EDM will jettison the heat shield and deploy a parachute system from its protective aeroshell. This will carry it down to an altitude of several dozen metres above the surface, before the lander drops clear of the aeroshell.  Rocket motors on the lander will then fire, slowly bringing it to around 2 metres (6.6ft) above the ground, where they’ll shut down, allowing Schiaparelli to drop to the surface, the impact cushioned by a crushable structure designed to deform and absorb the final touchdown impact. The entry, descent and landing should take around 6 minutes.

Throughout the descent, Schiaparelli will record a number of atmospheric parameters and lander performance, with a camera system recording its descent. Once on the surface, it will measure the wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure and surface temperature, and determine the transparency of the atmosphere. It will also make the first measurements of electrical fields at the planet’s surface.

The EDM will only operate for a short time on the surface of Mars – between 2 and 8 sols (Martian days) is the estimate. Its small size, coupled with the limited amount of space within it, means it is not equipped with solar arrays to re-charge its battery systems. However, the core aim of the mission is to better characterise the Martian atmosphere and test critical descent and landing systems needed for future missions, rather than carrying out long-term surface studies.

The Schiaparelli EDM
The Schiaparelli EDM and science instruments which will analyse the environment on the surface of Mars – wind speed, atmospheric pressure and temperature, humidity, dust content, atmospheric transparency, and local electric fields

The planned landing point for Schiaparelli is Meridiani Planum, the region NASA’s Opportunity rover has been exploring since 2004. The EDM will be arriving during the dust storm season, which will provide a unique chance to characterize a dust-loaded atmosphere during entry and descent, and to conduct surface measurements associated with a dust-rich environment.

I’ll have more on TGO and Schiaparelli in my next Space Sunday update.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: landings, launches and tiny worlds”

Spooky stories, drabbles and poems, hauntings and headstones

Seanchai Library is at Scare Me Silly 2016, October 16th - see below
Seanchai Library is at Scare Me Silly 2016, October 16th – see below

It’s time to kick-off a week of story-telling in voice, brought to our virtual lives by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s Second Life home at Bradley University, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, October 16th

13:00: Spooky Stories at Scare Me Silly

As guests of Kultivate Magazine, Seanchai Library and friends presents an hour of thrilling tales in the festival haunted House: Hana Hoo presents an original tale, Things That Go Bump in the Night; Vortran Torvalar presents Ray Bradbury’s The Coffin; Derry McMahon, Aoife Lorefield, & Caledonia Skytower present Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart; R. Crap Mariner adds Haunted One Hundred Words Stories to the mixture!

15:00: Stories at the Park

Join Caledonia Skytower, Trolley Trollop, and R. Crap Mariner for an hour of original short stories & poetry inspired by the current Art at the Park exhibition at Holly Kai Park. Just climb the steps from the landing point and just us at the Storyteller’s garden, surrounded by the art displays.

Holly Kai Park: Stories at the Park, October 2016
Holly Kai Park: Stories at the Park, October 2016

Monday October 17th, 19:00: A Spectre is Haunting Texas

Gyro Muggins concludes Fritz Leiber’s 1969 novel telling of a world in which Texas had secretly run the United States from 1845 through until the Third World War, after which the former state conquered the entire North American continent.spectre

Of it was never given out to the general public in the states, who never had no brains or guts nohow & flustered easy, that this assumption of leadership was annexation–but it was always known to the Speaker of the House & the senators who counted in Washington that secretest treaty Texas was boss…With the coming of the 3rd World War & the atomization of Washington, New York, San Francisco & so forth, secrecy became unnecessary.

Now, Scully Christopher Crockett La Cruz an actor, fortune seeker and adventurer from the isolated orbital technocratic democracies of Circumluna & the Bubbles Congeries, has arrived in what he believes to be Canada. He’s come to reclaim family mining interests, but finds Canada is now N. Texas, ruled over by primitive, backslapping, bigger than life anti-intellectual “good ol’ boys” convinced of their own moral superiority.

Tuesday October 18th, 19:00: More Madness and Other Tales

S.E. Schlosser is the author of the popular “Spooky Series”, illustrated by Paul G. Hoffman, focusing on spooky tales and lore from around the United States. Join Trolley Trollop as she delves into a rich vein of tales to suit the season.

Wednesday October 19th, 19:00: The Witch’s Headstone

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. His story forms the focus of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, from which this particular tale is lifted to form a short story in its own right.

Thursday, October 20th

19:00 Ghostly Suspense

With Shandon Loring in Second Life and Kitely (Check Kitely event announcements for specific grid location).

21:00 Seanchai Late Night

More spooky tales with Shandon Loring.

Please check with the Seanchai Library SL’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule.

The featured charity for September-October is Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF), a childhood cancer foundation dedicated to raising funds for research into new treatments and cures for all children battling cancer.

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