ExoMars 2018 Surface Platform Finalized
It's been a busy week for ExoMars ...
The two ExoMars spacecraft that make up the ExoMars 2016 mission began preparations for shipping to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan ahead of their launch in March.
And the ExoMars 2018 surface platform scientific package was finalized.
The ExoMars Program
ExoMars is a collaboration between the European Space Agency, the ESA, and Russia's Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, organized to study the Martian environment and to search for life. The purpose of the program, according to the ESA is quite simple:
Establishing if life ever existed on Mars is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time. To address this important goal, the European Space Agency (ESA) has established the ExoMars programme to investigate the Martian environment and to demonstrate new technologies paving the way for a future Mars sample return mission in the 2020's.
The program consists of two mission: one consisting of an Orbiter plus an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, to be launched in 2016, and the other, featuring a rover, with a launch date of 2018.
The first of the two ExoMars missions, ExoMars 2016, is in final preparation for launch next March and consists of:
- the Trace Gas Orbiter, which will investigate the possible biological or geological origins of important trace gases in the martian atmosphere, and
- Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module.
Schiaparelli will test key landing technologies and provide atmospheric and environmental data important for ESA's contributions to subsequent missions to Mars, including possible sample return missions.
The second ExoMars mission is ExoMars 2018, planned for launch in May 2018 with touchdown on the Red Planet in January 2019. This mission consists of two main components:
- a European-led rover -- the first to combine driving across the martian surface with drilling two meters below the surface, and
- a stationary surface science platform.
After landing on Mars in 2019, the rover will descend from the platform via a ramp and begin its operations.
The surface platform, however, will stay put where it lands. It will be used primarily to image the landing site and monitor the environment by sampling the atmosphere and analysing the radiation exposure.
It is expected to operate for at least one Earth year, but the details of the scientific instrument package had not been finalized.
The ExoMars 2018 Surface Platform
The surface package design is led by the Russians, but was anticipated to include European elements. It's a collaboration after all, right?
Following a call to the European scientific community issued in March 2015, nine proposals were received and assessed. ESA has now approved the selection of six European elements. This includes two fully European-led instruments, and four sensor packages to be included in two Russian-led instruments.
The two European-led instruments proposed are the Lander Radioscience experiment (LaRa) and the Habitability, Brine Irradiation and Temperature package (HABIT).
LaRa will reveal details of the internal structure of Mars, and will make precise measurements of the rotation and orientation of the planet by monitoring two-way Doppler frequency shifts between the surface platform and Earth.
It will also be able to detect variations in angular momentum due to the redistribution of masses, such as the migration of ice from the polar caps to the atmosphere.
HABIT will investigate the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, daily and seasonal variations in ground and air temperatures, and the UV radiation environment.
The four European sensor packages in the two Russian-led instruments will monitor pressure and humidity, UV radiation and dust, the local magnetic field and plasma environment.
As Jorge Vago, ESA's ExoMars 2018 project scientist. commented:
The surface science platform will serve as a long-lived stationary laboratory to monitor the local environment, which could include passing dust storms, lightning, and space weather effects. At the same time, the rover will travel several kilometres to search for traces of past life below the surface. It's a very powerful combination of instruments.
Last month, the Landing Site Selection Working Group recommended Oxia Planum region for further detailed evaluation for consideration as the primary landing site for the 2018 mission.
A further recommendation was made to also consider Oxia Planum as one of the two candidate landing sites for the backup launch opportunity in 2020, with a second to be selected from Aram Dorsum and Mawrth Vallis.
All three sites bear evidence of having been influenced by water in the past, and are likely representative of global processes operating in the Red Planet's early history.
ESA and Roscosmos will take a final decision on the landing site about six months before launch.