After months of traveling through deep space, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe is finally descending towards the surface of Mars. On Sunday afternoon, the lander separated from its orbital partner and began to spiral down towards its landing spot on the Red Planet. While Mars has been a popular site for NASA's robotic missions, such as the Curiosity rover, if Schiaparelli pulls off this maneuver it will be the first European probe to make its home on Mars. As it swings into position to make its final descent this Wednesday, here are five things to know about Mars’ newest explorer.
Who was Schiaparelli, anyway?
The lander is named after a 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. During the 1800s, astronomers were beginning to build larger and larger telescopes, which allowed them to peer further into space than ever before. As the director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, Schiaparelli turned his lens towards Mars and began to map its surface for the first time, according to NASA.
When Schiaparelli examined the Red Planet, he spotted features that resembled deep trenches streaking across Mars’ surface. At the time, Schiaparelli referred to them as “canali,” meaning channels. At some point this was misinterpreted to mean canals, leading many to assume they were artificially created, which spurred more than a century of science fiction, Kyle Chayka reports for Popular Mechanics. While Schiaparelli’s findings were eventually disproved in the 1970s when NASA’s Viking landers failed to find signs of canals or even ancient riverbeds, he remains firmly entrenched in the history books.
Who is running the mission?
Most of the Mars rovers that have successfully landed on our nearest neighbor in the solar system were designed, built and launched by NASA. However, the United States isn’t the only country interested in learning more about the Red Planet. The Schiaparelli probe is one half of the ExoMars mission, a collaboration between the ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, with the other half being the orbital “mothership” that got the lander to Mars in the first place, Ian Sample reports for The Guardian. While the lander touches down on the Martian surface, ExoMars' Trace Gas Orbiter will continue to circle the planet and gather data from its atmosphere, as well transmit data from the surface back to Earth.
Why is this a big deal?
The last time the ESA tried to get a lander to Mars was the failed Beagle-2 mission in 2003. Similar to the Schiaparelli lander and the Trace Gas Orbiter, the U.K.-designed craft was ferried to the Red Planet on the Mars Express orbiter. But after Beagle-2 separated from the orbital spacecraft to make its way down to the surface on Christmas Day, it vanished and was never heard from again. At the time, it was a major embarrassment for the ESA and a black mark on its burgeoning Mars exploration program, Jonathan Amos reports for the BBC.
What’s the mission's greatest challenge?
Aside from the fact that the ESA has never successfully landed a probe on Mars before, the mission faces major challenges in how Schiaparelli handles the Red Planet’s weather. Not only will it have to contend with navigating an active atmosphere during its descent, but it could be in for some rough times during its short lifespan. Last week, a group of American researchers studying Mars’ weather announced that the planet is not only overdue for a massive, world-spanning dust storm, but that it could start to kick up as early as this week. While the scientists behind Schiaparelli say the probe should be able to handle even a heavy dust storm, they won’t know for sure until it happens.
What happens next?
The Schiaparelli lander’s mission is fairly modest: to demonstrate that it works. After it successfully detached from the orbiter Sunday afternoon, the hope is for a smooth landing on the Red Planet to gather weather data for several days before its onboard battery dies. If Schiaparelli does land successfully, it will pave the way for a more robust future lander that will set out to scan the Red Planet for signs of life, the Press Association reports.
A lot is riding on the lander, but if it can pull off the mission it could mean NASA’s Curiosity rover will soon be getting company.