Russia-Europe Ties Counter Stormy Times, on Mars and on Earth

  • European Space Agency will attempt Mars landing of module
  • ESA-Roscosmos join Forces on Mars as Putin clashes with Europe

ESA Exomars mission’s spacecraft Schiaparelli module with thrusters firing.

Photographer: M.Thiebaut/ESA-ATG medialab

As Russia and Europe trade words on everything from Syria to Ukraine, their one joint project is also running into some rough weather -- on Mars.

QuickTake The New Space Race

The landing of the first scientific module by Roscosmos and ESA, the Russian and European space agencies, is forecast to be heading into a storm on Wednesday, leaving the exploration mission ExoMars at the mercy of one of the terrible Martian dust blizzards that is known to periodically sweep across the Red Planet.

Even as scientists from the two sides work hand-in-hand to ensure the module’s safe landing, back on Earth, Russian and European leaders are at loggerheads on several issues. French President Francois Hollande has accused Vladimir Putin’s Russia of committing war crimes in the Syrian town of Aleppo. The four-way talks between Putin, Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday in Berlin may not make much progress. Those disagreements will be set aside as their space agencies push through on a common goal: navigating the spacecraft called Schiaparelli 109 million miles away.

VIDEO: Simulation of Probe’s Mars Landing

Source: ESA/ATG medialab

“It’s nerve wracking, but if we can land through a global dust storm, we can make it anywhere!” said Thierry Blancquaert, the engineer at ESA who’s the lead manager of the module. “We built Schiaparelli taking that possible storm into account. We added an extra layer on the shield to counter erosion and made sure it could handle the winds.”

New Frontier

For ESA, the success of Schiaparelli would prove its ability to land and transmit information from the planet. Although the module’s mission is short -- just a few days -- it is seen as an important step in furthering Europe and Russia’s exploration of Mars. The planet is the new frontier for space agencies from China to the U.S.

Wednesday’s landing attempt is the first step of ESA’s two part 1.5 billion-euro ($1.65 billion) mission that was launched in March from the space center of Baikonur in Kazakhstan with a Russian Proton rocket. The second part of the mission is programmed for 2020 when the agencies will seek to land their own rover on Mars.

Since the first landing in 1971, eight spacecrafts have landed on Mars and successfully transmitted data. The first was a Russian module. All the others have been from the U.S. ESA’s Beagle 2 landed successfully in 2003 but failed to deploy all of its solar panels, making transmission impossible.

ExoMars was supposed to have been a joint U.S.-Europe program until 2012, when President Barack Obama cut funding for the planetary science division, forcing the Europeans to reach out to the other space masters, Russia.

Dust Storm

Now, as Schiaparelli prepares to enter Mars’s atmosphere, a “global dust storm” awaits it. The landing is set for 14:48:11 GMT (16:48:11 CET) after a six-minute descent. Officials from Roscosmos will be with their ESA counterparts at Darmstadt, Germany-based European Space Operations Centre. They will be monitoring the Thales Alenia Space’s Italian-made “entry-descent-landing demonstrator” spacecraft with a delay of 9 minutes and 45 seconds -- the time necessary for transmissions to travel at the speed of light.

The planet-encircling storm that will hit Schiaparelli has only been observed nine times since the early 20th century, with the last one in 2007. In 1971, the same kind of storm hit NASA’s orbiter Mariner 9, the U.S. space agency’s first spacecraft to circle Mars. Mariner 9 made it through.

Before touchdown, the ESA module will enter Mars’s thin atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 km/hr). Protecting it from the intense heat is a shield made with tiles of cork and resin coating by Airbus’s space unit.

Measuring Dust

Ironically, Schiaparelli was designed to measure dust. 

Among the instruments it carries on board is one called DREAMS (Dust Characterisation, Risk Assessment, and Environment Analyser on the Martian Surface).

“It will provide new insights into the role of electric forces on dust lifting, the trigger for dust storms,” according to ESA’s presentation.

Making Martian dust storms more predictable would be “a boon for future astronauts,” according to an Oct. 5 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory document. The Pasadena-based, California Institute of Technology unit said storms can “affect electronics and health, as well as the availability of solar energy.”

There are various types of storms on Mars. From local ones when Mars is at perihelion, or at its closest to the Sun, to bigger regional ones or planet-encircling “global dust storms,” which occur every five or more years.  The Hollywood blockbuster “The Martian” attempted to show actor Matt Damon make his way through one such dust storm, although scientists say the on-screen depiction fails to accurately capture the impact.

Mars’s Equator

Mars exploration got an enormous boost in August 2012, when NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed. The robotic vehicle continues to transmit breathtaking, high-resolution photographs of the dune-and butte-filled landscape.

Curiosity is exploring a crater that once held an ancient lake, proving Mars had a watery environment and, possibly, microbial life.

Schiaparelli is slated to land on the Meridiani Planum, a flat site near the equator of Mars. It will land in the same region as NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been exploring the region since 2004.

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