Giant leap as craft lands on Mars

MISSION CONTROL: An employee sits in the European Space Agency’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany Picture: EPA
MISSION CONTROL: An employee sits in the
European Space Agency’s mission control centre
in Darmstadt, Germany Picture: EPA

Scientists waiting to see what happens with test lander

The search for life on Mars took a giant leap yesterday when a space lander touched down on the red planet in Europe’s first attempt to land a craft there since the Beagle 2’s heroic failure more than a decade ago.

The Schiaparelli craft ended a seven-month, 496 million-kilometre trek from Earth with a dangerous dash through the Martian atmosphere, a critical trial-run for a larger and more expensive rover to follow.

However, scientists are still waiting to find out what shape it is in.

During the six-minute descent to the surface, it used a parachute and thrusters to slow from a speed of nearly 21 000km/h.

“We have to wait a little bit to see what happens with the test lander. But this [mission] is already a success so far,” European Space Agency director-general Jan Woerner said at ESA’s Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

The lander is named after Giovanni Schiaparelli, the Italian astronomer who in 1877 began mapping the topography of Mars, extending study of what are now known as the planet’s canals, a mistranslation of the Italian word canali, or channels.

“Mars has already inspired people for centuries,” Woerner said.

Schiaparelli is part of the European-Russian ExoMars programme, which will search for signs of past and present life on Mars.

It represents only the second European attempt to land a craft on the red planet.

Britain’s Beagle 2 was ejected from the Mars Express spacecraft in 2003 but never made contact after failing to deploy its solar panels upon landing.

At the time it was dubbed a heroic failure.

Landing on Mars, Earth’s neighbour about 56 million kilometres away, is a notoriously difficult task that has bedevilled most Russian efforts and given Nasa trouble as well.

A seemingly hostile environment on Mars has not detracted from its allure, with US President Barack Obama recently highlighting his pledge to send people to the planet by the 2030s.

South African-born Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is developing a massive rocket and capsule to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars with the ultimate goal of colonising the planet.

Musk hopes to launch the first crew as early as 2024.

The primary goal of ExoMars is to find out whether life has ever existed on Mars.

The spacecraft on which the Schiaparelli lander travelled to Mars, Trace Gas Orbiter, carries an atmospheric probe to study trace gases such as methane around the planet.

Scientists believe that methane, a chemical that on Earth is strongly tied to life, could stem from micro-organisms that either became extinct millions of years ago and left gas frozen below the planet’s surface, or that some methane-producing organisms still survive. – Reuters

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