Missions to Mars are a big deal these days. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is talking about sending people to the red planet in the 2030s. Meanwhile, billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson have created "space tourism" companies that are looking to land there even sooner. (Musk's company is called Space X, Branson owns Virgin Galactic.) One of last year's biggest movies, The Martian, was even about a manned mission to Mars.
But for now, we're still in the stage of sending probes to the planet. And so far, only NASA has successfully landed a probe on Mars. They have landed there seven times. As of tomorrow morning, two more space agencies hope to add their names to the list.
A European Russian partnership
Back in March, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos (Russia's space science program) jointly launched a rocket from the country of Kazakhstan. This was the ExoMars mission. Its destination, as you might guess by now, was Mars.
ExoMars' spacecraft has two main parts. The first is the Trace Gas Orbiter. This is a probe that is designed to stay in orbit around Mars until at least the end of 2022. It will spend these years examining the atmosphere of Mars and sending what it discovers back to scientists on Earth. The second parts is the Schiaperelli probe. This is the vehicle that will be landing on the planet's surface.
These two parts separated from each other on October 16th. Schiaperelli has since started to get ready for its descent, which will happen tomorrow, October 19th. Once it lands, it will have a short two to four day mission where it will collect information before its batteries run out of power and it shuts down.
Dust storm season is on
Though the probe has made it this far, landing isn't a sure thing. About half of the missions to Mars have failed to land successfully. And it is currently dust storm season on Mars, which could create complications. In the end, weather on another planet isn't something that you can really plan for—it's hard enough predicting the weather on Earth! The ESA and Roscosmos have prepared as well as they can and believe that they are going to succeed where some have failed. And if it is a clear day on Mars, NASA might have a few friendly images to share. Their Martian rover (a kind of robot jeep that lives on Mars) called Opportunity is going to be close to where Schiaperelli is supposed to land. NASA is planning on shooting some pictures of it as it descends. Now that's a vacation photo!
UPDATE ***Friday, October 21 2:30pm*** Unfortunately, the ESA is reporting that Schiaperelli did not successfully land and may have exploded on impact. The ESA lost contact with the probe about one minute before it was supposed to land. The data suggests that the thruster rockets — which were meant to slow the probe as it descended to the Martian surface — stopped firing too soon. NASA satellites orbiting Mars are showing a dark spot where Schiaperelli was meant to land. The probe likely slammed into the planet at 300km/h (186mph) and blew up. The ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter is functioning normally, though. It is still on track to complete its six year mission.