On March 14 2016 the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the first of two ExoMars missions. The second mission is scheduled to launch sometime in 2018 and builds on information provided by the first.
ESA has partnered with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency for both of these missions. Generally ESA is providing mission management and most of the instruments particularly for the first mission.
Roscosmos is will use its Proton rocket to launch both missions from its facility in Baikonur, and for the second mission contribute the descent module and the platform for the rover.
Quoting ESA as to the purpose of these missions:
“Establishing if life ever existed on Mars is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time. To address this important goal, the European Space Agency (ESA) has established the ExoMars programme to investigate the Martian environment and to demonstrate new technologies paving the way for a future Mars sample return mission in the 2020’s.”
If a sample is going to be returned to Earth it should be one selected by a human. That’s not species hubris talking. Geologists are on record as saying that while the rovers do a great job of collecting samples, there is no substitute for a human in that role.
While ExoMar’s science is important, none would be a necessary objective if humans were going to Mars in the near future. The same can be said of NASA’s InSIGHT mission. A plan to put humans on Mar obviates the need for most robotic surface exploration.
Still, the ExoMars program will undoubtedly provide interesting information and visuals.
The 2016 mission will have two components.
The first is the Trace Gas Orbiter and as the name suggests will look for gases which constitute less than one percent of the Martian atmosphere. Here’s how it will search:
NoMAD: A suite of three spectrometers, two infrared and one ultraviolet, will identify the components of the Martian atmosphere. While the Orbiter will provide the most complete breakdown yet of the atmosphere, the search will focus on methane, a strong indicator of organic activity. NOMAD will look for gases associated with geologic activity as well.
ACS: Three infrared instruments which will investigate the chemistry of the atmosphere by extending the infrared wave length of data captured by NOMAD spectrometers
CaSSIS: A camera capable of providing 45 meter per pixel resolution in color and three dimensions. The camera will be used to look for evidence on the planet’s surface of activities associated with gases such as methane.
FREND: A neutron detector which will look for hydrogen as far down as one meter from the surface. The instrument will reveal water-ice near the surface. The information obtained from FREND’s detector is ten times more sensitive than instruments used to date for this purpose.
The second component of the mission is the Schiaparelli lander.
Schiaparelli is a fixed place lander with no mobility. The instruments on board will measure electric fields on the Martian surface, the concentration of dust in the atmosphere and the electrical activity with the initiation of dust storms.
Schiaparelli will film its descent providing ESA with information useful on planning future landings.
Schiaparelli’s energy supply will be exhausted after eight days.
Undoubtedly the science from the missions will be cutting edge. But at what point do we begin to stop analyzing Mars from afar and decide that the best instrument for exploration is a human being?