ExoMars arrives at the Red Planet on Sunday

Grab some popcorn: the fun starts on the 16th and will climax as Schiaparelli lander touches down next Wednesday

Grab some popcorn, space enthusiasts, because this coming weekend the joint European Space Agency/Roscosmos “ExoMars” mission will arrive at Mars.

ExoMars broke the surly bonds of Earth last March and has since proven itself capable of taking photos and sending them home on a 2 Mbit/s link.

Now for the hard part.

The mission comprises two sub-missions. The first, the Schiaparelli lander, will separate from ExoMars on Sunday, October 16th. Schiaparelli is billed as a “landing demonstrator” that will “will test a range of technologies to enable a controlled descent and landing on Mars in preparation for future missions, including a heatshield, a parachute, a propulsion system and a crushable structure.”

The heatshield is designed to help the survive its passage through the Martian atmosphere at an expected initial speed of 21,000km/hr. A pair of parachutes will then slow things further, before the propulsion system – rockets – lower it to just a couple of meters above Mars' surface. At that point the rockets will cut off and the “crushable structure” should absorb the impact.

The Entry and Descent Module Descent Camera (DECA) should shoot the whole thing.

The lander bears what the ESA calls a “small science package” that can measure “wind speed, humidity, pressure and temperature at its landing site, as well … measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that may provide insight into how dust storms are triggered.”

It's expected the instruments will run for between two and eight days.

That's not a long working life compared to the amount of time other landers have spent on Mars, but this is a proof-of-concept mission it's hoped will validate technologies for the ESA's planned 2020 Martian rover mission.

The other ExoMars payload is the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and will try to make a detailed inventory of Mars' atmosphere. Boffins are especially interested to learn more about seasonal and geographic presence of methane, as that gas is a known product of biological processes. Or perhaps Mars belches it out from some other source. The TGO will take a few months to reach optimal orbit with more than a year of braking and positioning required before it is ready for work. It's hoped the orbiter will still be working with ExoMars 2, and its rover, arrive in 2020.

The ESA will broadcast as much of the fun as it can online. Arrival and separation will take place on the 16th around 17:20 GMT /19:20 CEST. If all is well, the lander will touch down at 14:48:11 GMT (16:48:11 CEST) on October 19th. Which should make for a productive Wednesday afternoon. ®

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