Mars lan­der makes risky touch­down on red planet

Kuwait Times - - NEWS -

FRANKFURT: The search for life on Mars took a gi­ant leap yes­ter­day when a space lan­der touched down on the red planet in Europe’s first at­tempt to land a craft there since the Bea­gle 2’s “heroic fail­ure” more than a decade ago. The disc-shaped 577-kg Schi­a­par­elli lan­der, which is test­ing tech­nolo­gies for a rover due to fol­low in 2020, landed on Mars af­ter a risky de­scent, but sci­en­tists are still wait­ing to find out what shape it is in.

Dur­ing the six min­utes de­scent to the sur­face, it used a para­chute and thrusters to slow from a speed of nearly 21,000 km per hour. “We have to wait a lit­tle bit to see what happens with the test lan­der. But this (mis­sion) is al­ready a suc­cess so far,” Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) Di­rec­tor General Jan Wo­erner said at ESA’s Space Op­er­a­tions Cen­tre in Darm­stadt, Ger­many.

The lan­der is named for Gio­vanni Schi­a­par­elli, the Ital­ian as­tronomer who in 1877 be­gan map­ping the to­pog­ra­phy of Mars, ex­tend­ing study of what are now known as the planet’s canals, a mis­trans­la­tion of the Ital­ian word canali, or chan­nels. “Mars has al­ready in­spired peo­ple for cen­turies,” ESA’s Wo­erner told Reuters TV.

Schi­a­par­elli is part of the Euro­pean-Rus­sian Ex­oMars pro­gramme, which will search for signs of past and present life on Mars and rep­re­sents only the sec­ond Euro­pean at­tempt to land a craft on the red planet. Bri­tain’s Bea­gle 2 was ejected from the Mars Ex­press space­craft in 2003 but never made contact af­ter fail­ing to de­ploy its so­lar pan­els upon land­ing. At the time it was dubbed “a heroic fail­ure”.

Land­ing on Mars, Earth’s neigh­bor some 56 mil­lion km away, is a no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult task that has be­dev­illed most Rus­sian ef­forts and given NASA trou­ble as well. A seem­ingly hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment on Mars has not de­tracted from its al­lure, with US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama re­cently high­light­ing his pledge to send peo­ple to the planet by the 2030s. En­tre­pre­neur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is de­vel­op­ing a mas­sive rocket and capsule to trans­port large numbers of peo­ple and cargo to Mars with the ul­ti­mate goal of colonis­ing the planet, with Musk say­ing he would like to launch the first crew as early as 2024.

Life on Mars

The pri­mary goal of Ex­oMars is to find out whether life has ever ex­isted on Mars. The space­craft on which the Schi­a­par­elli lan­der trav­elled to Mars, Trace Gas Or­biter (TGO), car­ries an at­mo­spheric probe to study trace gases such as meth­ane around the planet. Sci­en­tists be­lieve that meth­ane, a chem­i­cal that on Earth is strongly tied to life, could stem from mi­cro-or­gan­isms that ei­ther be­came ex­tinct mil­lions of years ago and left gas frozen be­low the planet’s sur­face, or that some meth­ane-pro­duc­ing or­gan­isms still sur­vive. “If there is life in our so­lar sys­tem be­yond Earth, then Mars is the most in­ter­est­ing planet,” ESA’s Wo­erner said.

The sec­ond part of the Ex­oMars mis­sion, de­layed to 2020 from 2018, will de­liver a Euro­pean rover to the sur­face of Mars. It will be the first with the abil­ity to both move across the planet’s sur­face and drill into the ground to col­lect and an­a­lyze sam­ples. The Ex­oMars 2016 mis­sion is led by the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA), with Rus­sia’s Roscos­mos sup­ply­ing the launcher and two of the four sci­en­tific in­stru­ments on the trace gas or­biter. The prime con­trac­tor is Thales Ale­nia Space, a joint ven­ture be­tween Thales and Fin­mec­ca­nica. The cost of the Ex­oMars mis­sion to ESA, in­clud­ing the sec­ond part due in 2020, is ex­pected to be about 1.3 bil­lion eu­ros ($1.4 bil­lion). Rus­sia’s con­tri­bu­tion comes on top of that. — Reuters

An artist’s im­pres­sion yes­ter­day shows the Schi­a­par­elli mod­ule on the sur­face of Mars. — AP

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