Looking forward to Europe's 'seven minutes of terror'

Potential landing configuration Lavochkin is still working through the potential configurations for its ExoMars landing mechanism

An important decision will be taken shortly that will have a major bearing on Europe's ExoMars rover, due to be sent to the Red Planet in 2018.

A choice has to be made on the configuration of the rover's undercarriage - its rocker-bogie system.

Two companies - Ruag of Switzerland and MDA of Canada - were asked to produce competing six-wheeled demonstrators that were nicknamed "Bradley" and "Bruno".

You may have seen them or their predecessor prototype, "Bridget", at various shows around Europe in recent years.

The billion-euro project has however got to the point where it must move forward with a single design, and either Ruag or MDA will now be contracted to build it.

This week, the European Space Agency (Esa) released another 70 million euros to advance the rover mission towards its date with a Proton launch rocket in May 2018.

More money is required, of course, and where it will come from has yet to be precisely determined, but for the moment the venture remains officially "on track".

That is in large part thanks to the Russians who have stepped into the gaping hole left by the Americans' retreat from ExoMars in early 2012.

As well as that Proton, Russia's key contribution to 2018 will be the mechanism that gets the rover down to the surface of the Red Planet.

ExoMars artist's impression The design of the rover itself is well advanced

This will be built by Lavochkin, which produced the extraordinary 1970s Lunokhod Moon rovers, one of which drove more than 40km. And it is probably worth keeping these vehicles in mind because some of the kit that Lavochkin is proposing for ExoMars' descent is reminiscent of its old technology.

The Lunokhods came down on legged landers that then deployed ramps for the rovers to drive down. The 350kg ExoMars will do something very similar.

Of course, the big difference between Mars and the Moon is that the latter is an airless body. An atmosphere must be negotiated at Mars and that can cause all kinds of grief.

ExoMars will be encapsulated in a heatshield-protected module when it arrives at the Red Planet in early 2019, travelling at some 6km/s.

It will be the classic "seven minutes of terror" as the engineering tries to slow the velocity to no more than 1m/s by the time ExoMars reaches the surface.

Lavochkin's current strategy is to use two parachutes - one opened while the module is still moving at supersonic speeds, and another deployed once subsonic flight has been achieved.

As we saw with Nasa's Curiosity vehicle last year, the heatshield will eventually fall away from the entry capsule to allow ExoMars to emerge also, riding its retro-rocket-equipped lander.

The last kilometre or so to the ground is guided by radar, which sends information about the approaching surface to the lander's pulsed thrusters. Hopefully, we'll hear the rover operations team, who'll be based in Turin, Italy, call out "Tango Delta Nominal", or some such equivalent, to indicate a soft, safe contact.

Lunokhod Moon rover The Lunokhod Moon rovers arrived on legged landers that deployed ramps for the vehicles to drive down

Europe's one and only attempt to land on Mars in 2003 ended in failure. The Russians have tried many times and have not had any success really worth talking about. So there is huge pressure on both parties to get the 2019 touchdown right.

It should help that some key technologies will have been tested on the "other" ExoMars mission in 2016. This is the satellite that will search for methane and other trace gases in the planet's atmosphere. The intention is for the satellite to despatch a short-lived, battery-operated weather station to the surface as soon as it arrives.

ExoMars drill ExoMars will use a drill to get up to 2m below the surface of Mars

The sub-sonic parachute, the radar and the GNC (guidance, navigation and control) system used to get this station to the ground will all be re-used in Lavochkin's lander a year and a half later.

"We should learn a lot in 2016," says Vincenzo Giorgio who leads the ExoMars industrial project at prime contractor Thales Alenia Space. "These systems will be thoroughly tested. The radar, for example, we are about to start testing on a helicopter next week. And we will take it also to Morocco, near Marrakesh, to a terrain that looks very much like Mars."

Incidentally, the Russians plan to put a meteorological station on the rover's lander, with the difference being that it will be powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator - a nuclear battery. This will give the weather sensors long-term power.

We have to hope it all works. ExoMars has been such a long-drawn-out affair, I'm not sure I could bear a crash-and-burn story in 2019.

The vehicle will go with a suite of nine instruments that will for the first time since Viking try to answer the "is there life on Mars?" question. Recent missions have restricted themselves to chasing the history of water on the planet and wondering whether conditions in the past might have been habitable. ExoMars will have a stab at looking for microbe activity and will drill up to 2m into the ground to look for clues. Its big onboard lab, Moma, will check dirt samples for organic chemistry linked to biology.

"We have to do this and we have to succeed," Esa's director of science, Alvaro Gimenez, told me this week. "It's not going to be easy but it should be really exciting."

ExoMars German chancellor Angela Merkel with the "Bridget" ExoMars prototype at this year's Cebit technology show
Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Space exploration and humanities colonisation of space is one of those areas that should be exempt from costs.
    1 billion euros or even 10 billion euros will be nothing if that 10 mile wide asteroid comes our way and we are still all sat on Earth squabbling over budget cuts.

    Lets not be one of many intelligent beings in the universe, that nearly made it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    There is life up here and it is very peaceful. We hope you decide to stay on the blue planet. Keep all your weapons and diseases to yourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Space exploration really seems to be focussing on Mars at the moment. We currently have 3 satellites around Mars, another 2 planned in the next few years. There's also 2 rovers, plus another one planned along with 2 new landers. Hopefully building up to manned exploration, but in the mean time the robots are doing a good job.
    Would like to see Titan get a bit of attention too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Seventy Million Euros is nothing nowadays, people can win that much on the Lottery.

    OK it'd be a bit disappointing if the Module crashed or burnt up but if we can land successfully and send back similar amounts of Data to that from the Curiosity mission will be worth every cent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    For all those asking as to why... wouldn't it be amazing if proof of life on other planets could be established? Even better if it were a European venture that did it.
    For those that disagree, I doubt you even look up at the sky at night and wonder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Lets do this Europe!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I hope the locals like us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Silly trying to copy what's already been done. Join forces with Russia and get some people there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I would give anything to be part oif the team building this. Building something going to Mars - that's really exciting! Going to a school and inspiring children- or even a single child - to build the space mission after Exomars: that would be truly satisfying.

    Best of luck to all concerned!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    14.11 Gareth Bales
    "Our grandparent got a man to the moon in a generation, yet here we are 50 years later still sending bits of metal to the next frontier. The Chinese will walk on the moon first"
    I think the Americans already did.
    Did you mean the Chinese would walk on Mars first? I do agree with that. The West has become so risk-averse and bureaucratic that big projects take for ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Our grandparent got a man to the moon in a generation, yet here we are 50 years later still sending bits of metal to the next frontier. The Chinese will walk on the moon first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    They certainly aren’t going for the futuristic look. Bridget looks like one of those down hill race carts that students build with a camera bunged on to make it look like something special.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Seems a bit 1970s technology compared with the us version

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    2. blondie
    What a waste of money! Can't you think of something better to spend the money on?

    Afghanistan? Photocopying?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    UK has the 2nd largest space industry in the world. Why then, do we seem to be the only rich country without a fully fledged independent space program? There's NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, the CNSA, and the principally German-French-Italian ESA (the UK gov regularly cocks up co-operation with European partners), and so would-be UK astronauts are sidelined. The BSA should be a force to be reckoned with!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Sine Wave, what was on that program was a prototype, a model. Built on the cheap to test various elements of it. The real over's design hasn't been finalised, that was not it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "What a waste of money! Can't you think of something better to spend the money on?"

    My guess is that you'd spend it on booze, fags and a popular sports tv channel package

    Meanwhile, in the real world, the UK prove once again that we lead the world in many high-tech engineering areas. Good to see

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I saw the Euro Rover in an amateur astronomy show earlier this year and it truly looked appalling, clanking and clonking in the studio. I wondered if would fair even worse than Beagle 2? It truly looked an amateur effort. Quite embarrassing against the outstanding American MSL achievement. I wish the Euro Rover well however.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I am sure i saw one of those at the local supermarket chocolate counter. Its tail was wagging.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Just get on with it! No wonder the world is in a financial mess, billions upon billions are just sitting in accounts all over the world while people bicker about things. It's all probably earning interest for some very rich people so they're stalling.

    Get money moving around. If not with massive projects like this then at least on multiple smaller projects. Rich people, help us out please.


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