If all goes well, Europe will become the second group ever to land successfully on Mars. The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander has separated from its mothership, the ExoMars Orbiter, and today the lander will descend to the surface of the red planet.
Mars is a graveyard of failed landers. To date, the U.S. is the only nation to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars and have it operate for more than a few minutes, starting with the Viking missions in 1976. But we lost plenty of landers later, as did the USSR and the United Kingdom. Now Europe will once again attempt to touch down in the red dust of the fourth planet from our sun.
Mission Control will begin livestreaming at 6am Eastern. The lander is expected to hurtle into Mars’ atmosphere at 10:42am, at a speed of about 13,000 miles per hour, for a touch down 6 minutes later. If you ever wanted to watch a bunch of aerospace geniuses bite their nails in terror, now’s your chance. You can watch it here:
Because Schiaparelli’s signal has to cross millions of miles from Mars to Earth, there’s a lag time of about 10 minutes. So we won’t know for sure whether the landing was successful until about 10:58.
While the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter searches Mars’ atmosphere for methane or other potential signs of life, the Schiaparelli lander will test out a new landing method that utilizes a heat shield to protect the craft from the heat as the craft enters Mars’ atmosphere, then deploying parachutes, before firing up thrusters for a soft landing.
If it works, ESA plans to use the same strategy to land its first rover on Mars in 2020.
Good luck out there, Schiaparelli!