ExoMars 2022 Mission: If There Is Life On Mars, We Will Know For Sure In 2023!

Establishing whether 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) is preparing together with the
Russian space agency Roscosmos the ExoMars 2022  mission, whose rover will leave equipped with
a real laboratory for biological analysis. ExoMars 2022, in fact, will deliver a rover,
named Rosalind Franklin, and a Russian surface  platform, named Kazachok, to the surface of Mars.
A Proton rocket will be used to launch the  mission, which will arrive at Mars after a
nine-month journey. The ExoMars rover will travel  across the Martian surface to search for signs of
life. It will collect samples with a drill and  analyze them with next-generation instruments.
ExoMars will be the first mission to  combine the capability to move across the
surface and to study Mars at depth of two meters. And perhaps it will be the mission of redemption
for Europe, which so far has never managed to  bring down one of its rovers or landers on the
Martian surface. Or at least, that’s what we all  hope, because the Rosalind Franklin rover – more
than all others sent so far – is the one with  the best chance of finding life on Mars (if any).
It’s been almost half a century since the  European Space Agency was born in Paris.
It was May 30, 1975. Ten countries of the
“old continent” met in the name of science to  create an Agency that could keep up with the
two superpowers that then dominated the space  sector: the Soviet Union and the United States.
And in all these years, ESA has certainly  succeeded in achieving the goal it had set itself,
becoming a space exploration power and supporting  a market, that of the new space economy, which
in recent years has seen unprecedented growth. The first great successes of ESA began in 1986,
with the probe Giotto, sent to meet Halley  and to photograph for the first time
ever the nucleus of a comet. Then many other missions,
such as the Hipparcos in 1989 to measure the  real distance of tens of thousands of stars,
and the Ulysses probe sent to the Sun in  1990… Not to mention the Huygens probe,
sent to land on Titan in 2005, and which is still  the spacecraft that made the soft landing farthest
from Earth. And all while the mother probe  Cassini, the result of collaboration with NASA,
explored the Saturn system, making us participants  in extraordinary scientific discoveries.
But there is much more: spacecraft sent to Venus  and Mercury, or space telescopes sent to search
for data on the cosmic background radiation, like  Planck in 2009 or like Herschel in the same year,
who flew to the second Lagrangian point of  the Earth to hunt for extrasolar planets.
And in 2014 the exciting adventure given to  us by the Rosetta probe, which you will all
remember for the extraordinary photos taken  of the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko and for
the first landing on a cometary nucleus … But that’s not enough … around our planet,
there are dozens of satellites put  into orbit by the Old Continent.
Some of them are telescopes and probes that  scan the cosmos (one of them is Hubble,
realized in partnership with NASA). Others instead  observe us. They are the guardians of our Planet.
They allow us to keep an eye on the effects  of climate change, prevent the consequences,
act in case of emergencies and keep  our infrastructure under control.
The ESA has also signed a large part of  the International Space Station itself,
and also has its own spaceport in South  America: the one in Kourou, in French Guyana.
In short, decades of great  successes, with a single worry …
That of not having yet been able to land its  own lander or rover on the surface of Mars.
It has tried twice, and both  attempts have resulted in failure.
The first time happened with the mission that  brought then in Mars orbit the probe Mars Express,
but that also had to bring down on the sands  of Isidis planitia the small lander Beagle 2,
built by the British space agency. The lander separated from the probe on
December 19, 2003, and after six days should  have landed on Mars, braked by a series of
parachutes and protected by some airbags at  the time of impact with the ground. It was
photographed by the mother-probe on Christmas  day of 2003 while it was preparing to descend,
then nothing more was known. It was speculated  that it had missed the planet completely,
or that it had crashed. Then, in 2015 it was  discovered that it had managed to land, but that
the solar panels had not opened properly, thus  depriving it of the possibility of communication.
The one who really crashed was the Schiaparelli  lander during ESA’s second attempt to land on
Mars. This time the mission, carried out in  collaboration with the Russian space agency,
was ExoMars 2016, also composed of a probe, the  Trace Gas Orbiter, which managed to regularly
enter Martian orbit, and the lander dedicated  to the memory of the Italian astronomer.
However, the communication with the lander  stopped about 50 seconds before the expected
ground contact, just after the parachute and the  heat shield had been released from the lander.
Further analysis of telemetry data transmitted  in real time by the lander allowed ESA
engineers to discover that the retrorockets  were turned off by the onboard computer
after only 3 seconds instead of the expected  30. According to ESA estimates, the lander has
traveled in free fall about 3 km and impacted  with the Martian soil at a speed of 300 km / h,
spreading its wreckage among  the sands of Meridiani Planum.
In short, apart from the orbiters,  regularly entered in service, from Mars,
ESA has so far received only great  disappointments, minimally mitigated by
the objective difficulty that all space agencies  of the Earth have found in making a soft landing.
But woe betide giving up. The ExoMars 2016  mission was in fact only the first phase
of a more articulated mission, which  later included the launch of ExoMars 2018,
intended to bring to Mars  the first European rover.
But even with ExoMars 2018 considerable  difficulties arose. Initially, the whole mission
was supposed to be an ESA-NASA collaboration, but  then, when by then the European agency had already
started the plans for its realization, NASA  withdrew from the agreement for budgetary reasons.
So ESA turned to Roscosmos, which was  desperately trying to get back on track
after previous failures, in particular  that of the Phobos-Grunt mission,
which was supposed to bring back to Earth samples  of the Martian moon Phobos, but for a malfunction
of the last stage of the carrier fell back  into the Earth’s atmosphere burning completely.
The change of partner was not painless: less  money, many technologies to be replaced,
much time lost. The second mission, initially  scheduled for 2018, has slipped by two years,
thus becoming ExoMars 2020, and then by another  two for problems encountered in the parachute
tests and for the slowdown due to the pandemic. So, now we are talking about ExoMars 2022,
a mission that if all goes well will be launched  on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan,
in the 20 September – 1 October 2022 launch  window. It is planned to land on Mars
in the Oxia Planum region on June 10, 2023. During launch and cruise phase, a carrier module
(provided by ESA) will transport the surface  platform and the rover within a single aeroshell.
A descent module (provided by Roscosmos) will  separate from the carrier shortly before reaching
the Martian atmosphere. During the descent phase,  a heat shield will protect the payload from the
severe heat flux. Parachutes, thrusters,  and damping systems will reduce the speed,
allowing a controlled landing  on the surface of Mars.
“Hey, guys, just a moment before we continue…  BE sure to join the Insanecuriosity Channel…
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After landing, the rover (recently named  in honor of scientist Rosalind Franklin,
who made key contributions to the understanding  of the molecular structures of DNA)
will egress from the platform to start its  science mission. The primary objective is to
land the rover at a site with high potential  for finding well-preserved organic material,
particularly from the very early history  of the planet. The rover will establish
the physical and chemical properties of  Martian samples, mainly from the subsurface.
Underground samples are more likely to  include biomarkers, since the tenuous
Martian atmosphere offers little protection from  radiation and photochemistry at the surface.
The drill is designed to extract samples  from various depths, down to a maximum of
two meters. It includes an infrared spectrometer  to characterize the mineralogy in the borehole.
Once collected, a sample is delivered  to the rover’s analytical laboratory,
which will perform mineralogical and  chemistry determination investigations.
Of special interest is the identification of  organic substances. The rover is expected to
travel several kilometers during its mission. The ExoMars Rover provides key mission
capabilities: surface mobility, subsurface  drilling, and automatic sample collection,
processing, and distribution to instruments.  It hosts a suite of analytical instruments
dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry  research: this is the Pasteur payload.
The Rover uses solar panels to  generate the required electrical power,
and is designed to survive the cold Martian nights  with the help of novel batteries and heater units.
Due to the infrequent communication opportunities,  only one or two short sessions per day,
Rosalind Franklin is highly autonomous. Scientists  on Earth will designate target destinations on the
basis of compressed stereo images acquired  by the cameras mounted on the Rover mast.
Rosalind Franklin must then calculate navigation  solutions and safely travel approximately 100
meters per day. To achieve this, it creates  digital maps from navigation stereo cameras and
computes a suitable trajectory. Close-up collision  avoidance cameras are used to ensure safety.
The locomotion is achieved through six wheels.  Each wheel pair is suspended on an independently
pivoted bogie (the articulated assembly  holding the wheel drives), and each wheel can
be independently steered and driven. All wheels  can be individually pivoted to adjust Rosalind
Franklin’s height and angle with respect to the  local surface, and to create a sort of walking
ability, particularly useful in soft, non-cohesive  soils like dunes. In addition, inclinometers and
gyroscopes are used to enhance the motion control  robustness. Finally, Sun sensors are utilised to
determine the rover’s absolute attitude on the  Martian surface and the direction to Earth.
The camera system’s images, combined with ground  penetrating radar data collected while travelling,
will allow scientists on-ground to  define suitable drilling locations.
Rosalind Franklin’s subsurface sampling device  will then autonomously drill to the required
depth while investigating the borehole wall  mineralogy, and collect a small sample.
This sample will be delivered to the analytical  laboratory in the heart of the vehicle.
The laboratory hosts four different instruments  and several support mechanisms. The sample will
be crushed into a fine powder. By means of a  dosing station the powder will then be presented
to other instruments for performing a detailed  chemistry, physical, and spectral analyses.
The chosen landing site, Oxia Planum, is a 200  km-wide clay-bearing plain located inside the
Oxia Palus quadrangle on the eastern boarder of  Chryse Planitia. The plain lies between the Mawrth
Vallis outflow channel to the north-east and the  Ares Vallis outflow channel to the south-west.
Oxia Planum contains one of the largest  exposures of rocks on Mars that are
around 3.9 billion years old and clay-rich,  indicating that water once played a role here.
The site sits in a wide catchment area  of valley systems with the exposed rocks
exhibiting different compositions, indicating a  variety of deposition and wetting environments.
A period of volcanic activity may have covered  early clays and other aqueous deposits,
offering preservation for biosignatures against  the planet’s harsh radiation and oxidation
environment, and have only been exposed by  erosion within the last few hundred million years.
Well, that’s it! We are still two years  away from the arrival of the rover on Mars.
Let’s cross our fingers and hope that  Rosalind Franklin will be able to find
on the red planet the most important thing in  the universe: LIFE, in whatever form it is.

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