FRANKFURT Oct 16 A Mars lander is due to leave
its mothership on Sunday and head toward the red planet's
surface to test technologies for Europe's planned first Mars
rover, which will search for signs of past and present life.
After a seven-month journey from Earth as part of the
European-Russian ExoMars programme, the Schiaparelli lander is
expected to separate from spacecraft Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) at
1442 GMT and start a three-day descent to the surface.
Schiaparelli represents only the second European attempt to
land a craft on Mars, after a failed mission by the British
landing craft Beagle 2 in 2003.
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.
The United States currently has two operational rovers on Mars,
Curiosity and Opportunity.
But a seemingly hostile environment has not detracted from
the allure of Mars, 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 colonizing the planet, with Musk
saying he would like to launch the first crew as early as 2024.
The primary goal of ExoMars is to find out whether life has
ever existed on Mars. The current spacecraft 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.
In 2018, NASA also plans to launch a Mars spacecraft, a
satellite known as InSight and designed to study the deep
interior of Mars.
($1 = 0.9060 euros)
(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Dominic Evans)