FRANKFURT Oct 19 The search for life on Mars
may take a giant leap on Wednesday when a space lander is due to
touch 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
The disc-shaped 577-kg (1,272 lb) Schiaparelli lander, which
will test technologies for a rover due to follow in 2020, is
expected to enter Mars's atmosphere at a speed of nearly 21,000
km (13,049 miles) per hour at 1442 GMT.
It will use a parachute and thrusters to slow down before
touching down on the planet's surface only six minutes later.
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.
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, after 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 neighbour some 35 million miles (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 U.S. President Barack Obama recently
highlighting his pledge to send people to the planet by the
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
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.
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
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.
($1 = 0.9060 euros)
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)