Russia back to Red Planet - ExoMars-2016 Mission


The joint mission ExoMars-2016 of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos will be launched to the Red Planet in March 2016, the governing council of the mission took this decision on September 24, 2015. This is the first European mission to Mars for the past 13 years and the first attempt of Russia to launch a spacecraft into the orbit of the Red Planet for the past 5 years. Russia failed the previous two unmanned missions to Mars, and the country has had no successful missions to the Red Planet since 1988 (the "Phobos-2" program).

The new European-Russian mission ExoMars-2016 is a continuation of the Mars Express and "Mars-96" programs. Today, the joint mission is estimated at one billion euros and includes two phases - ExoMars-2016 and ExoMars-2018. ExoMars-2016 program involves launching the Trace Gas Orbiter using the carrier rocket "Proton-M" from the Baikonur cosmodrome, as well as the Schiaparelli Demonstrator Module in March 2016. For the first phase of the mission Russia will provide the carrier rocket and half of the scientific tools for the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), while ESA will provide the TGO and the Schiaparelli module. The Russian Space Research Institute (IKI RAN) has developed the ACS (Atmospheric Chemistry Suite) to study the chemical composition and structure of the Mars atmosphere as well as FREND (Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector) – a neutron detector to search for hydrogen. Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) assisted in developing the data processing algorithms to analyze the atmosphere.

It will take up to nine months for the ExoMars-2016 mission to travel to the Red Planet. Three days before reaching the atmosphere of Mars, Schiaparelli will separate from the Orbiter and begin to coast to Meridiani Planum two kilometers south of the equator. During the descent, it will explore the Martian atmosphere (composition, density, humidity, pressure, wind speed, temperature and dust content) and on landing, it will study the electric field of the planet. The 600-kilogram module is designed to perform controlled landing on the surface of the planet and won’t be equipped with solar panels, so it will work for no more than eight days.

The main scientific research will be conducted by the TGO station, which is to explore the Red Planet at an altitude of about 400 kilometers from the surface. Scientists are especially interested in studying methane, acetylene and water in the Martian atmosphere. Unlike the previous missions, the station equipped with the scientific tools will allow to determine the concentration of these vital compounds about a thousand times more accurately. ESA will contact with the TGO and NASA will receive the data from Schiaparelli. The ExoMars-2016 mission is scheduled to work until 2023.

During the second phase called ExoMars-2018, the module with the landing platform and the ExoMars rover are expected to be launched to Mars. Russia will provide the carrier rocket "Proton-M", the module with the landing platform, as well as research tools for the rover.

The ExoMars-2018 mission is unique as it slows a more comprehensive and accurate study of the atmosphere and soil of the Red Planet than the previous missions. In particular, the rover will be equipped with a device that allows drilling to the soil of the Red Planet to the two-meter depth. If the ExoMars-2018 mission isn’t launched in 2018, it will be postponed to 2020.

Text by

Pictures by ESA