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 64.

    @63. Rob

    Probably not but the most ill thought out project is likely benefit mankind much more

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Spend all the money you like on any science project you care to mention and it won't be remembered for as long as a single one of Shakespeare's sonnets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    So before we finish wrecking this planet we want to wreck another?

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

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

    What like killing people I've no quarrel with in foreign lands? That's what seems to be top of the agenda these days. I'd rather see my tax pounds / Euros spent on science and engineering.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    45 legasud

    Solutions to all the problems you mention are available. It's not the fault of science that nothing has been done, it's not a lack of money, it's our crazy world that puts political and religious dogma before people. Complain about politics and religion if you want something to be done about the world's problems not science. Science is part of the solution not part of the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    20 minute time lag.

    We don't need a rover, we need a production line. Lots of small, identical (and cheaper) rovers. Spend the whole day receiving data from multiple locations and directing various rovers' next moves instead of waiting for a reply from just one. Repeat on another part of Mars.

    Individual missions are inflexible and a waste of resources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    @40 Feel free to invest billions in finding the edge of space. As any half-intelligent astrophysicist would tell you, the Universe can be modeled as the surface as the surface of a balloon. Thus you are sitting on the edge of space already, and would have wasted billions of dollars. Scientists have already answered most of the other questions you have answered. Please leave them to do their jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Go for it Europe. In the UK we have good engineers but the poorest politicians (Angela Merkel has a Ph.D in nuclear physics so can understand a technical argument). We also have a high tech space industry which earns the UK £millions p.a. The Iraq war cost the UK about £1million per day - I haven't seen the cost for the Afgan incursion but it's probably around the same. Can we afford it - yes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.



    Yes really it is the biggest question. Is it the most pressing question at this point in time? Now that's debateable.

    But imagine if we did find life or evidence that it once existed. That would be the end of all your daft religions. Although I'm sure the Mormons and Scientologists would say it originated of Kolob or Xenu lol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    For the next of the rovers would it be a good idea to start sending chemical synthesis gear of various kinds to start looking at what we can extract from the surface and atmosphere of Mars. If we seriously want a manned mission or a colony it makes sense to be manufacturing what we need on site rather than transporting it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Put the robotic exploration of Mars together with the various arguments for a permanent human presence on Mars and stop complaining that
    Mars probes are a waste of effort.

    Time and effort spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    More money spent on discovering our own planet would be useful too.
    Mars - if lucky some fossil life forms.
    Earth - 8.7 million living , evolving species - including those that live in 'alien' environments - caves - artic , deep sea vents ....

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    @39 Leave scientists to explore, discover and understand the universe. Politicians and the rest of humanity can deal with equality, injustice and poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Ref 50.MacSasha

    Well, well. I stand corrected, AND have learned something new too ;o)

    How long d'ya suppose THAT little nugget has been hidden away?

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    49 Muppet Master

    Sorry, mate. That's just an urban myth, albeit an amusing one. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fact-or-fiction-nasa-spen

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Some point out that this is just a 'cheap' version of NASA's rover. Let me put it into some sort of perspective

    NASA spent tens of millions of dollars to make a pen which would write upside-down in weightless conditions so astronauts could record information. The Russians solved the problem much more cheaply...

    They gave their cosmonauts a pencil - 2 roubles a packet of 50

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I quite agree Citizen Too .
    Since the end of the Cold War , I've never understood why nations still have to prove to others what they can do by themselves .
    Let's all get together and get humans to Mars .

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    It is about time all countries with an interest in space exploration came together to support the venture instead of dissipating funds on a number of repetitive projects as is the case at present.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    #45 legasud
    "Finding 'life' on Mars is "the biggest question in science"?..."

    A. Finding alien life of any kind anywhere would be a colossal boost to biology and ultimately to medicine as well.
    B. None of the things you say are mutually exclusive, we can do all of them, and many more together. Sci and tech forms an intricate web and any discovery anywhere can lead to new elsewhere.
    C. Curiosity!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Finding 'life' on Mars is "the biggest question in science"? More important, then, than effective treatments for disease? More important than developing carbon capture technology? More important than reversing desertification? More important than developing plant and animal types that could help to end Third World hunger? More important than finding new, non polluting power sources?



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