ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter blasts itself closer to the Red Planet

Mission aims to find little green men, no less

 Schiaparelli separating from Trace Gas Orbiter. Pic: ESA–D. Ducros

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has successfully completed its engine burn and is on track to enter orbit around Mars on 19 October.

The engine burn has been dubbed “deep-space manoeuvre 1” and is one of the most critical stages in the first mission of the ExoMars programme.

A large amount of thrust is needed to change the orbiter’s direction and speed, by 326 metres per second. It was performed at 1030 BST and lasted for 50 minutes.

ESA took to Twitter to announce that it had completed its engine burn.

Another series of smaller burns is expected to practice for the Mars Orbit Insertion manoeuvre and to tweak the orbiter’s position before it gets up close and personal with the Red Planet.

On 16 October, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will eject Schiaparelli, the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), where it will take three days for the lander to arrive on the surface of Mars.

Schiaparelli lander descending through Martian atmosphere and landing on surface. Photo credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The TGO and Shiaparelli lander are part of a wider ExoMars mission led by the ESA and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency to hunt for signs of life on Mars. The fascination with the Red Planet is driven by tantalising evidence that life may have once existed.

Last year, one of NASA’s satellites captured dark stripes on the surface of Mars and provided the best proof yet that the planet may have once harboured water. Trace amounts of gases such as methane mean organic compounds are present – another component scientists consider vital on the checklist for life.

The TGO will study methane and look for other gases that could be linked to biological or geological activity. Schiaparelli’s main aim is to test technologies needed for landing but it will also be studying Mars’ environment by taking measurements of its winds during its short lifetime.

The TGO and Schiaparelli will be joining NASA’s Curiosity rover in an international effort to capture Mars in the best detail yet. ®


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