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 Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    There's a trick to creating new and amazingly practical solutions to real problems.
    First, you find something we know little or nothing about and then let clever people discover what they can about it.
    Second, let other people learn about what's been discovered, and some of the cleverest amongst them will say, "Ah-ha, with what I've learned I can think of some amazingly useful applications!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    40. Hamish Cameron

    "Personally I find mars very boring..."

    Scientists have begun to answer most of the questions you raised. The biggest question in science is whether there is life anywhere else in the Universe except Earth. It's very likely there is, but the truth is no one knows yet. Finding life on Mars would be the greatest discovery in the history of Science. I'm sorry you find it boring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    28. legasud

    "The millions already spent scream out that there is no life on Mars and there never has been..."


    The results from probes show that in the past Mars had Water and Oxygen, the two things that are most essential for life. Mars almost certainly had life in the past and could have it now.

    Complain about the money spent on armaments and wars if you are worried about waste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Why concentrate on Mars? There's a very large universe out there, and some money spent on looking at other moons/worlds might be a better use of money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Personally I find mars very boring, If someone is going to spend billions of pounds, I want bigger answers; how big is the space? what is at the ends of the space!? when were the first galaxies formed? how? where did the material came from and who brought it and how?
    If the best they can tell me is that they will find out one fine day! Then give me the billions and I might tell you sooner!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    @38, totally agree with you. Space exploration is expensive and as such not easily identifiable with resolving urgent human needs.
    I am still not sure what the scope is? Do we really need to know which stars collided to make the earth, in order to help the poor and tackle injustice and inequality? If yes, then may we go all the way and ask how, when and why space and it's contents came about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I think I would rather the money was spent on sorting out the immediate problems the world faces. By the way, where does Michael, who says that every pound spent on space exploration generates £7 for the economy get his figures? Even if this is the case, I bet that those people who really need help don't benefit from this in any way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    "...other crazy ideas such as arming canabalistic rebels in other countries.."

    I hope you realize that by not helping the rebels in Syria we are effectively helping Assad, a butcher of a hundred thousand plus people. This isn't another Iraq its another Cambodia. (lookup Pol Pot)

    With your lack of insight no wonder your whining about ESA spending a few Euros going to Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    For goodness sake, why are we wasting billions on sending a craft to Mars when the EU does not have any money? The only useful thing would be to send Barrosso, Van Rompoy Ashton and all the other losers that constitute the political 'leaders.' Leave the Yanks to waste their money on space. I hope we in the UK re not putting any money into this joke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @31: "However, when the Euro Rover demonstrated its movement over a rock in the studio it clanked like an empty dustbin"

    You have to bear in mind that was a massively early prototype, they haven't even chosen who will build the final chassis yet, let alone built it with its final configuration.

    Newer tech in space isn't always better. Look at NASA's problems with memory corruption on Curiosity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Google probably already have a tax haven set up on Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The ever expensive costs of space exploration are ignored, just as the poor are ignored in order to pay for it and many other crazy ideas such as arming canabalistic rebels in other countries while the poor in their own countries depend on charitable handouts. And if we do set up colonies in space you can be sure that only the ones who can afford the tickets will be saved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Just as an extra point of note to the people who whined about it costing money:

    For every pound spent on space research, on average, £7 is generated in the wider economy as a direct result, and indirect benefits are possibly even larger.

    It is a mathematical fact that investing in cutting edge space science is BRILLIANT for the economy, and everyone benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    #7. Sine Wave
    The Russian T34 tank was crude but it worked, Sometimes making a too sophisticated object can lead to disaster when a tiny component fails.
    I agree. However, when the Euro Rover demonstrated its movement over a rock in the studio it clanked like an empty dustbin being thrown in the wind. The shuddering bash to the rover body seemed really disconcerting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @28: "The millions already spent scream out that there is no life on Mars"...

    Errrr, do you know something you don't to explain the seasonal methane emissions that are higher in warm weather?
    Do you have amazing insight into chemical markers that seem to indicate possibilities of life?

    Or are you merely guessing because you don't understand how important the question is.

    This. Is. IMPORTANT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The money isn't blasted into space; it's spent employing people at the cutting edge of science & engineering. Stop programmes such as these and then there are even more people unemployed!
    I don't want to live in a world where we stop exploring just because a few bankers screwed up. The search for knowledge pretty much defines humanity.
    Plus there are practical benefits - miniaturisation for one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Other than Thatcha's funeral, and the EU foreign office, this idiotic farce is the most perfect waste of financial resources possible. While people starve in the real world,our betters waste money on pointless prestige projects. The millions already spent scream out that there is no life on Mars and there never has been but, hey, it's only ordinary people who are suffering. Sickening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The efforts of all space agencies - government programmes spending taxpayers' money - lead nowhere, expensively; only commerce offers a viable future and thus my guess is that the economics depend on the potential for exploitation, which will be robotic, rather than astronautic. Unless Mars has a commercial, or industrial role, going there will be short-term and very expensive, with little result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Many wonder if middle of a recession is best time to be repeating experiments,with yet ANOTHER rover,that have already been done on the dead red dust ball.Meanwhile,the struggle to get by in Austerity-ville.When we can afford it/technology half-way capable of guaranteeing success,fair enough.For now,technology cant and we need to get own yard in order before throwing more billions into space

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    7. Sine Wave
    The Russian T34 tank in WW11 was crude but it worked, Sometimes making a too sophisticated object can lead to disaster when a tiny component fails.


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