If all goes well around 10:48 a.m. EDT Wednesday, a joint Europe-Russia probe called the Schiaparelli lander will rocket toward the surface of Mars, cut its thrusters, and plop down in the red dirt of the desolate planet.
Although more of an engineering proof-of-concept than a science mission, the probe is part of the ExoMars 2016 mission and would mark the first successful Mars landing for the European Space Agency (ESA).
For Russia, Schiaparelli could be the nation’s third successful Mars landing. (It landed two others during the Cold War when it was known as the Soviet Union.)
You can watch it live starting at 11:40 a.m. EDT via the livestream video provided at the end of this post.
A hair-raising descent
This won’t be Europe’s first attempt at landing a probe on Mars.
In 2003, the ESA tried to touch the Beagle 2 lander on Mars. After jettisoning it from an orbiting spacecraft, however, the robot was lost and never heard from again.
It wasn’t until January 2015 — more than a decade later — that NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found and photographed the dead rover in a satellite image. An subsequent investigation found that its solar panels had failed to deploy, so it never mustered the energy to phone home to Earth.
The 8-foot-wide Schiaparelli lander departed from its Martian gas-sniffing mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the morning of October 16.
Its hair-raising descent to the surface of Mars should take less than 6 minutes because it will initially travel at 13,000 mph (21,000 kph).
To slow down, Schiaparelli will first burn through a heat shield, deploy a parachute, and later cut the parachute loose. After free-falling for a while, it will fire its thrusters — until it’s sensors detect that it’s hovering just a few feet from the ground.
At that point the thrusters will stop, and it will drop with a thud onto a honeycomb-like pad that’s designed to crumple and absorb the impact.
The probe is really just a practice run for a future ExoMars 2020 wheeled rover mission, but it will take pictures of its descent (they should be available Thursday, October 20) and attempt to measure Mars’ electric field for the first time, among other observations.
Watch the landing live on video
The ESA is broadcasting a live video stream of the landing attempt starting at 11:40 a.m. EDT on October 19. (Click play to start the livestream.)
Again, the probe is expected to land around 10:48 a.m. EDT.
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