ESA/ATG medialab
ESA/ATG medialab

Tomorrow ESA Will Land a Spacecraft on Mars

ESA/ATG medialab
ESA/ATG medialab

Tomorrow, October 19, the European Space Agency's ExoMars lander will touch down, marking the first time the ESA has landed a spacecraft with—we hope—total success on the red planet, setting the stage for a new era of planetary exploration by the Europeans. You can follow the action live on ESA's Facebook page beginning at 8 a.m. EDT. During the six-minute descent, which should begin at 9:42 a.m. EDT, the lander will return up to 15 images of the rapidly approaching surface, and once on the ground will activate a temporary weather system that will run for approximately two days. If all goes according to plan, the photos captured during the descent will be presented the following day, October 20, during a press briefing.

Named Schiaparelli after the 19th-century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who drew the first maps of Mars, the lander is a technology proof-of-concept. Launched on March 14, it was built by Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian aerospace contractor, and is intended to demonstrate that ESA has Mars landing capability—no small achievement. Mars is notoriously inhospitable to landers, having eaten several spacecraft from Roscosmos, NASA, and most recently, ESA; its Beagle-2 lander apparently touched down in 2003 but failed to function thereafter. Data collected during the descent and landing of Schiaparelli will be applied to the next phase of the ExoMars mission, tentatively set for 2020, in which an actual, ESA-built rover will be placed on the Martian surface for an exploration mission.

ExoMars is a joint mission between ESA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. As originally conceived, the mission would have been a collaboration between ESA and NASA. But the U.S. agency withdrew from the project, leaving ESA in the lurch and intensifying already stormy relations between the two agencies following NASA's withdrawal from the Europa Jupiter System Mission in 2011. (ESA's part of the Jovian project has been redesigned as a standalone mission called JUICE, for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer.) When NASA walked away, Russia agreed to help ESA, providing a launch vehicle and scientific instruments for this phase of the mission, and agreeing to build the lander and instruments for the next.

On October 16, the lander separated from its mothership, a newly arrived Martian satellite called the Trace Gas Orbiter. While the lander performs its brief mission on the surface, the orbiter will circle Mars in preparation for its science mission, set to begin in 2018. (The delay is due to the aerobraking maneuvers necessary to take it to a tight, circular orbit about 250 miles above the Martian surface.) Once its mission is underway, the orbiter will search the Martian atmosphere for such gases as methane, an indicator of possible active and ongoing life. It will also image the planet's surface in an attempt to find water ice. When the ExoMars rover arrives in the 2020s, the Trace Gas Orbiter will be its data relay; the rover will send data to the orbiter, and the orbiter will send the data back to Earth.

As for the lander: During its descent, it will measure changes in temperature, density, and pressure. Once on the ground, it will perform an analysis of the electrical properties of the Martian atmosphere and perform meteorological tests—humidity, wind speed and direction, pressure, and temperature, among other things.

In addition to the ExoMars Facebook Live and Livestream feeds, the agency is also running a liveblog of ongoing mission activities and updates. This can help provide context and granular-level information on what is happening and why.

Send Your Name to Space on NASA's Latest Mars Lander

Humans may not reach Mars until the 2030s (optimistically), but you can get your name there a whole lot sooner. As reports, NASA is accepting names from the public to be engraved on a small silicon microchip that's being sent into space with their latest Mars lander, InSight.

All you have to do is submit your name online to NASA, and the space agency will put it on the lander—in super-tiny form, of course—which will set off for Mars in May 2018.

This is the public's second shot at getting their name to Mars: NASA first put out a call for names to go to the Red Planet with InSight in 2015. The planned 2016 launch was delayed over an issue with one of the instruments, and since the naming initiative was so popular—almost 827,000 people submitted their names the first time around—they decided to open the opportunity back up and add a second microchip.

A scientist positions the microchip on the InSight lander.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

NASA is encouraging people to sign up even if they've sent in their names for other mission microchips. (The space agency also sent 1.38 million names up with Orion's first test flight in 2014.) You can put your name on both of InSight's microchips, in other words, as well as any future missions. The agency's "frequent flyer" program allows you to keep track of every mission to which your name is attached. Interplanetary fame, here you come.

You can submit your name for the InSight mission until November 1 using this form. If you miss the deadline, though, don't worry too much: You'll soon be able to submit your name for Exploration Mission-1's November 2018 launch.


Big Questions
Who Owns the Land on Mars?

Nicolas Nelson:

“Who owns the land on Mars? Suppose I go there and [claim the planet by right of conquest or first discovery] and say ‘Hey, I’m selling the whole planet...'"

Sorry, friend, can’t do that.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 clearly states that all extraterrestrial real estate “belongs to all mankind” and cannot be claimed as sovereign territory by any nation-state. That kind of sovereign ownership used to be fundamental to any subsequent private ownership claims: the “crown” (or whatever government) had to deed it to you somehow. Nowadays, land ownership can derive from a legal regime, either a nation’s constitution (which inherited “sovereignty” from the old monarchies) or by an international treaty that establishes such a regime … which in this case is exactly what the Outer Space Treaty does.

On the other hand, the OST-1967 does not make private ownership illegal in space or on other planets. Like any good legal regime, the OST-1967 laid a foundation, and later laws passed in nations that are signatories to that treaty have been building upon it. For instance, both Luxembourg and the United States of America have passed laws that clarify property ownership of “space resources,” whether acquired in free-fall (like asteroids, comets, or even the solar flux that photovoltaic panels turn into electricity) or on a planetary surface, or beneath it (like any resources you collect on Mars … or Venus or whatever).

So, as I understand it currently, you can land on Mars and set up your settlement: you own all the stuff you brought with you, but not the land you plopped it onto.

But as your construction bots bulldoze regolith up onto your inflatable dormitory to protect it from radiation, that regolith is now a “resource” that you’ve collected and are using. Now you own that, too.

Your Sabatier-reactors (no radiation, don’t freak out) and your RWGS plant begin sucking in the thin Martian atmosphere and making oxygen, methane, and water out of it. You drill a well down to a geothermally-heated aquifer deep beneath your settlement and use that well to generate electrical power, heat your settlement, do cool science with it (look for microbial life!), and very carefully filter it so you can add it to your water supply: all those “resources” now belong to you.

But you’ve made it complicated now. You have drilled a well and have usage rights to that well… does that give you “water rights” to the giant aquifer you tapped? To some degree? You have built so much stuff on a clearly-delineated area: even though you cannot own it like “real estate,” haven't you established a whole blanket of rights to it just as if you’d homesteaded it or staked a mining claim?

You have a launch and landing pad nearby (not too nearby) with radar telemetry around it: you don’t own the rights to the open air above your launch pad because you own the pad, but you can assert those rights because of the way you use that resource: your future neighbor can’t build a bridge right over your launch pad because it would interfere with your ability to use the improved space resource that belongs to you.

Your rude neighbor could be an idiot and set a fragile inflatable dome next to your launch pad, since you can’t point to a property line and say “behind that, fella”, and since it does not physically interfere with your use of your property. You have the right to go on using your preexisting launch facilities and roast his dome. In that way, it isn't a question of property rights but wisdom versus idiocy.

You can see that once people actually begin “harvesting” and “improving” space resources, property laws will mature pretty quickly. They haven't yet … but the fundamental legal regime is clear: Mars “belongs” to everyone—and therefore, in a practical way, to no one.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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