Desert trial for ESA Mars rover

Next week will see ESA’s most ambitious planetary rover test yet. Robotic exploration of a Mars-like desert in South America will be overseen from the UK, providing experience for future missions to the Red Planet.

The rover faces the desolate Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the closest terrestrial matches for Mars. Among the driest places on Earth, it lacks any vegetation and its red–brown soil and rocks make it look even more like Mars.

The aim is to build up experience in operating rovers on a planet, which requires a very different way of working from a satellite mission.

For added pressure on the rover’s remote overseers – based at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Harwell, UK, next to ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications – each day of the five-day  test will be treated as equivalent to two Mars days, or ‘sols’.

For each sol they will first downlink data then prepare a set of commands for the next sol that the rover will then carry out on its own.

The trial is intended to develop technologies and expertise for future Mars missions in general, but for added realism it is using ESA’s 2018 ExoMars rover as its ‘reference mission’.

An early prototype of the six-wheeled ExoMars rover will be put through its paces, fitted with prototypes of three of its scientific instruments: a panoramic camera for stereo 3D imaging, a ground-penetrating radar to probe subsurface geology, and a close-up imager for studying subsurface samples to a resolution of a thousandth of a millimetre.

These three instruments will work together to select a sample site with outcrops of bedrock beside looser material. A human-operated hand drill will gather underground samples for the rover to examine – although this human intervention will remain invisible to the remote operators.

“This field trial is about optimising the use of typical instruments and equipment aboard a Mars rover and generating a set of commands for the rover to execute the following day,” explains Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, project for ESA.

Image credit: ESA-Michel van Winnendael


Sensor Being Developed to Check for Life on Mars

Signs of life on the Martian surface would still be visible even after bacteria were zapped with a potentially fatal dose of radiation, according to new research — if life ever existed there, of course.

Using “model” bacteria expected to resemble what microbes could look like on the Red Planet, the research team used a Raman spectrometer — an instrument type that the ExoMars rover will carry in 2018 — to see how the signal from the bacteria change as they get exposed to more and more radiation. 

The bottom line is the study authors believe the European Space Agency rover’s instrument would be capable of seeing bacteria on Mars — from the past or the present — if the bacteria were there in the first place.

Readings from the NASA Mars Curiosity rover recently found that humans on the surface of Mars would have a higher risk of cancer due to the increased radiation level on the surface. Mars does not have a global magnetic field to deflect radiation from solar flares, nor a thick atmosphere to shelter the surface.

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Credit: ESA/NASA/Elizabeth Howell

Landing site recommended for ExoMars 2018

Oxia Planum has been recommended as the primary candidate for the landing site of the ExoMars 2018 mission.

ExoMars 2018, comprising a rover and surface platform, is the second of two missions making up the ExoMars programme, a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos. Launch is planned for May 2018, with touchdown on the Red Planet in January 2019.

The main goal for the rover is to search for evidence of martian life, past or present, in an area with ancient rocks where liquid water was once abundant. A drill is capable of extracting samples from up to 2 m below the surface. This is crucial, because the present surface of Mars is a hostile place for living organisms owing to the harsh solar and cosmic radiation. By searching underground, the rover has more chance of finding preserved evidence.

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ExoMars’ Organic Sniffing Spectrometer

Lewis Dartnell spent the better part of two years researching and field-testing methods to reboot society in his best-selling book The Knowledge. But his day job is arguably even cooler: as an astrobiologist at the University of Leicester, he’s developing ways to look for life on Mars through the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. Here, Dartnell provides an update on the frequently delayed, yet scientifically promising mission.

Wired: In The Knowledge, you incorporate ideas and methods from many different branches of science. How does this kind of interconnectedness show up in your own work?

Dartnell: Drawing from lots of different sources is what I do in my own research in astrobiology, and not just knowledge, but the methods and techniques you could use. It’s not just biology, but engineering, and robotics and instruments as well as physics and planetary science, and you’re constantly outside of your comfort zone having to learn new things. It keeps you on your toes, but that’s what I enjoy about astrobiology.

Wired: What is your role with the ExoMars mission?

Dartnell: The exciting thing about ExoMars is that, not only will it for the first time have a drill so it can get properly underground on Mars and find stuff that has been protected from the surface environment, but it’s also going to use experiments like Raman spectroscopy, which is the one that I’m directly involved in at the University of Leicester. The reason Raman’s exciting is that it’s very sensitive and very competent and capable of picking up organic molecules or bio signatures of life, and we want to try this new technique on Mars.

Wired: What are your expectations for ExoMars?

Dartnell: We don’t know, and that’s the point of exploration; you don’t always know what you’re going to try and find. You know what you’re hoping for, and what might be realistic to expect. So what we hope to find on Mars are organic molecules – the basic Lego pieces or building blocks or chemistry kit for life; amino acids and sugars that should exist on Mars but we have yet to discover. Hopefully either NASA’s Curiosity or ESA’s ExoMars will discover those, and maybe beyond that they’ll find not just the building blocks for life but signs of life itself – biosignatures.

Wired: What kinds of biosignatures would be convincing as a sign of past life?

Dartnell: A biosignature is any sign or any evidence of life, and this might be something like a fossilised shape that looks a bit like a cell, it might be things as complex as DNA. It might be more subtle things like isotopic ratios in rocks, which on Earth are used to show early cases of life. Or if we do find things like amino acids, we can tell if they are made by life or through non-living processes like pre-biotic chemistry by their molecular handedness. So there are various quirks or various signs of organic molecules we can look for that would point to biology, rather than geochemical processes.

Wired: What is the likelihood that you will find biosignatures on Mars?

Dartnell: Unfortunately, you basically can’t answer that question. It’s somewhere between 0 and 1, but we don’t know because whenever you’re trying to do something in science you’re trying to do something new that you don’t already know the answer to,

However, for all we know about life on Earth, it seems to have arisen pretty rapidly. It seems like it might be a probable thing to happen, if you’ve got the right kind of environment. So the big question is whether Mars ever have the right kind of environment, and if so, did that basic pre-biotic chemistry ever get far enough down the line to produce cells? And if that happened, what might be the best way of looking for that life and trying to detect these biosignatures? Which biosignatures would still remain after all this time? This is the kind of thing we’re trying to do with ExoMars.



The ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli module in Baikonur

by European Space Agency
On 14 March, the launch window opens for ExoMars 2016, ESA’s next mission to Mars, composed of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Last month, the two spacecraft left Thales Alenia Space in Cannes, France, where they had been for the final few months of assembly and testing, and headed towards the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. With both now in Baikonur, preparations are under way for the launch on a Russian Proton rocket during a window that remains open until 25 March. The 600 kg Schiaparelli – pictured here being unpacked in a cleanroom in the cosmodrome – will ride to Mars on the Trace Gas Orbiter. Three days before they reach the Red Planet, Schiaparelli will separate from the orbiter, which will then enter orbit for a five-year mission of studying atmospheric gases potentially linked to present-day biological or geological activity. Schiaparelli will enter the atmosphere at 21 000 km/h and slow by aerobraking in the upper layers, then deploying a parachute, followed by liquid-propellant thrusters that will brake it to less than 5 km/h about 2 m above the surface. At that moment, the thrusters will be switched off and it will drop to the ground, where the impact will be cushioned by its crushable structure. Less than eight minutes will have elapsed between hitting the atmosphere and touching down in a region known as Meridiani Planum. Scientific sensors on Schiaparelli will collect data on the atmosphere during entry and descent, and others will make local measurements at the landing site for a short period determined by its battery capacity. Schiaparelli will remain a target for laser ranging from orbiters using its reflector. The module is named in honour of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who mapped the Red Planet’s surface features in the 19th century. Credit: TsENKI

ExoMars Scientists Narrow Down Landing Sites
Facing engineering constraints, researchers propose four destinations for European rover.
Elizabeth Gibney, Nature News & Comment, 02 April 2014
Image source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Scientists have picked four potential landing sites for a European rover designed to search for life on Mars [Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Oxia Palus].

The 300-kilogram ExoMars rover, part of a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, is scheduled to land on the red planet in early 2019. Armed with a drill that can bore 2 metres into rock, the rover will search for preserved organic matter that, on the surface, might have been destroyed by harsh radiation.

Continue reading …

More on the ExoMars program at the European Space Agency …

ESA’s test rover begins exploring the Atacama Desert

ESA’s test rover has been fitted with scientific instruments  and made its first tracks in the sands of Chile’s Atacama Desert. Meanwhile, team members have explored the area to select a suitable site for testing, flying a drone to produce an aerial map.

This week’s Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, field trial is gaining experience in remotely operating a Mars rover prototype equipped with scientific instruments. ESA has assembled an international industrial team for the trial, which takes place in the Mars-like Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth.

ESA’s 2018 ExoMars mission is acting as the ‘reference mission’ for the trial. The rover vehicle used for the trial, called ‘Bridget’, is provided by Astrium Stevenage in the UK. 

On Tuesday morning a trio of prototype ExoMars rover instruments was fitted to Bridget. The panoramic camera provides stereo 3D terrain imagery, the close-up camera works like a geologist’s hand-lens for high-resolution imaging, and the radar peers through soil for a detailed 3D view of the shallow subsurface beneath the rover.

On Monday evening, before the rover had been deployed in the field, panoramic images were sent to the control centre. Looking at them along with a digital elevation map, the remote control team had to make their first decision on the path to be taken by the rover the following day.

“The next morning, once the instruments were installed, this route was uploaded to the rover,” adds Michel. “It then began its first exploration, with some debugging and manual interventions needed along the way.

“Nevertheless, after a long working day that lasted until sunset, the data collected by the instruments were sent back to the control centre.”

Image credit: ESA/RAL Space

ExoMars 2018

The ExoMars mission, scheduled for 2018, will search for signs of life on the Martian surface. Currently, there are four sites that are being considered for landing. The four sites are located near the equator and in an area where liquid water might have once been.

The selection process continues with landing simulations at each of the four sites, with the goal of choosing a final landing site by 2017.

The ESA press release discusses the reasoning behind the selection of the each site.

Image: The locations of the four possible landing sites. The coloring of the map represents the topography of the Martian surface: green regions represents an acceptable elevation, grey is where the elevation is too high, and black is where too much dust is present. (Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/LSSWG)


Estas cosas me ponen a tope :3


Preparing ExoMars in Baikonur. Launch scheduled on March 14, 2016.


The ExoMars spacecraft is almost complete. A joint mission between ESA and Roscosmos, it begins with the launch of the ExoMars orbiter in 2016 and carries an aerodynamically designed capsule containing a robotic lander.

Getting to Mars, landing there safely and searching for life is a huge scientific and technical challenge. ExoMars 2016 will send back information about the Martian atmosphere and the lander’s findings. These will inform the second part of the mission, in 2018, when a European rover will drill into the Martian surface, up to two metres down. The rover will be trying to detect traces of organic molecules that indicate the presence of past or present life on Mars.

This video includes interviews with Jorge Vago, ExoMars Project Scientist, ESA and Pietro Baglioni, ExoMars Rover Manager, ESA. It shows ExoMars 2016 nearing construction in its clean room at Thales Alenia Space in France and a prototype ExoMars rover in the ExoMars test yard at ESA’s ESTEC facility in the Netherlands.


ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter arrives at Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The orbiter and its small Schiaparelli lander will launch in March 2016.

Budget Axe to Gore America’s Future Exploration of Mars and Search for Martian Life

America’s hugely successful Mars Exploration program is apparently about to be gutted by Obama Administration officials wielding a hefty budget axe in Washington, D.C. Consequently, Russia has been invited to join the program to replace American science instruments and rockets being scrapped.

NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget is due to be announced on Monday, February 13 and its widely reported that the Mars science mission budget will be cut nearly in half as part of a significant decline in funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The proposed deep slash to the Mars exploration budget would kill NASA’s participation in two new missions dubbed “ExoMars” set to launch in 2016 and 2018 as a joint collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA/NASA partnership would have dispatched the Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for atmospheric methane, a potential signature for microbial life, and an advanced Astrobiology rover to drill deeper into the surface in 2018. These ambitious missions had the best chance yet to determine if Life ever evolved on Mars.

The 2016 and 2018 ExoMars probes were designed to look for evidence of life on Mars and set the stage for follow on missions to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the Red Planet’s surface and eventually land humans on Mars.

Read more at Universe Today

NOOOOOOOO!!!!! :’(

Mars moisture-farming mission gets approval for 2018 launch
An instrument that will collect and test water on Mars is to launch on the 2018 ExoMars mission. If it works, it could provide water for future crewed missions
By Jacob Aron

Whichever way you look at it, manned Mars missions are still a long way off. But thankfully, no one is sitting on their hands when it comes to continuing to discover more about Mars while we prepare to make our own way there.

There are a few new Mars missions coming up in the next couple of years - NASA’s InSight will launch next year, to study the geology of Mars (or areology, rather!), and ExoMars, a collaboration between ESA and Roscosmos, is planned to launch in 2016 (with an orbiter and lander) and 2018 (with a rover).

I’m especially excited for ExoMars - I hope that ESA will finally be able to successfully land and receive data from a Mars mission this time. And each component of the mission contains several different instruments, so we’ll be able to learn a lot from the mission.

Since we know Mars to have recurring slope lineae, there must be a source of liquid water - either seeping from within the ground or condensing from the air. Additionally, results from Curiosity suggest that the surface of Mars may undergo a sort of water cycle in which moisture from the air is absorbed by the top layer of soil, before evaporating again. This opens up the possibility for moisture-farming - and it sounds like something you’d find on Tatooine rather than on Mars, but if HABIT shows that it’s feasible, it could well become one of the technologies we use to supplement our water supply on Mars.

Four candidate landing sites for ExoMars 2018
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ESA / ROSCOSMOS - ExoMars Mission logo.

1 October 2014

Four possible landing sites are being considered for the ExoMars mission in 2018. Its rover will search for evidence of martian life, past or present.

ExoMars is a joint two-mission endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. The Trace Gas Orbiter and an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, will be launched in January 2016, arriving at Mars nine months later. The Rover and Surface Platform will depart in May 2018, with touchdown on Mars in January 2019.

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Rover landing site candidates

The search for a suitable landing site for the second mission began in December 2013, when the science community was asked to propose candidates.

The eight proposals were considered during a workshop held by the Landing Site Selection Working Group in April. By the end of the workshop, there were four clear front-runners.

Following additional review by an ESA-appointed panel, the four sites have now been formally recommended for further detailed analysis.

The sites – Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Aram Dorsum – are all located relatively close to the equator.

“The present-day surface of Mars is a hostile place for living organisms, but primitive life may have gained a foothold when the climate was warmer and wetter, between 3.5 billion and 4 billion years ago,” says Jorge Vago, ESA’s ExoMars project scientist.

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Mawrth Vallis

“Therefore, our landing site should be in an area with ancient rocks where liquid water was once abundant. Our initial assessment clearly identified four landing sites that are best suited to the mission’s scientific goals.”

The area around Mawrth Vallis and nearby Oxia Planum contains one of the largest exposures of rocks on Mars that are older than 3.8 billion years and clay-rich, indicating that water once played a role here. Mawrth Vallis lies on the boundary between the highlands and lowlands and is one of the oldest outflow channels on Mars.

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Oxia Planum

The exposed rocks at both Mawrth Vallis and Oxia Planum have varied compositions, indicating a variety of deposition and wetting environments. In addition, the material of interest has been exposed by erosion only within the last few hundred million years, meaning the rocks are still well preserved against damage from the planet’s harsh radiation and oxidation environment.

By contrast, Hypanis Vallis lies on an exhumed fluvial fan, thought to be the remnant of an ancient river delta at the end of a major valley network. Distinct layers of fine-grained sedimentary rocks provide access to material deposited about 3.45 billion years ago.

Finally, the Aram Dorsum site receives its name from the eponymous channel, curving from northeast to west across the location. The sedimentary rocks around the channel are thought to be alluvial sediments deposited much like those around Earth’s River Nile.

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Hypanis Vallis

This region experienced both sustained water activity followed by burial, providing protection from radiation and oxidation for most of Mars’ geological history, also making this a site with strong potential for finding preserved biosignatures.

“While all four sites are clearly interesting scientifically, they must also allow for the operational and engineering requirements for safe landing and roving on the surface,” adds Jorge.

“Technical constraints are satisfied to different degrees in each of these locations and, although our preliminary evaluation indicates that Oxia Planum has fewer problems compared to the other sites, verification is still on going.”

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Aram Dorsum

The next stage of analysis will include simulations to predict the probability of landing success based on the entry profile, atmospheric and terrain properties at each of the candidate sites.

The aim is to complete the certification of at least one site by the second half of 2016, with a final decision on the landing site for the ExoMars 2018 rover to be taken sometime in 2017.

Notes for Editors:

Download the full report: Recommendation for the narrowing of ExoMars 2018 landing sites: http://exploration.esa.int/mars/54707

More ExoMars images, including digital terrain models of the candidate landing sites, are available here: http://exploration.esa.int/mars/44969-images-videos-archive/

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/Roscosmos/LSSWG/DLR/FU Berlin & NASA MGS MOLA Science Team.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch
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Scientists Want ExoMars Rover to Land at Oxia Planum

Scientists Want ExoMars Rover to Land at Oxia Planum

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Possible future Mars landing site in Oxia Planum. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

The joint ESA and Russian ExoMars rover’s top priority is to search the Martian surface for signs of life, past or present, and scientists think they know just the spot where – if life ever existed or exists on Mars – it might be found. Today the ExoMars team announced that the equatorial region named Oxia…

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ExoMars lander module named Schiaparelli
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The entry, descent and landing demonstrator module that will fly on the 2016 ExoMars mission has been named ‘Schiaparelli’ in honour of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who famously mapped the Red Planet’s surface features in the 19th century.

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Russian space agency also on the hunt for extraterrestrial life
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Russian space agency also on the hunt for extraterrestrial life – Russia’s space agency recently released a draft of their Federal Space Program for 2016 to 2025, and it includes their plans to join the European Space Agency (ESA) on the ExoMars Program whose mission is to hunt for signs of extraterrestrial life on Mars. (more…)

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