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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.

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NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Space
NASA Could Be Sending Autonomous Bee Drones to Mars
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

While NASA is inching closer to landing humans on Mars, a team from Japan and the U.S. is working on exporting something else to the red planet: robot bees. As Co.Design reports, the engineers believe their hive of drones, dubbed Marsbees, could be used to explore the surface of Mars autonomously.

The project is one of a handful being funded by NASA in 2018 as part of the space agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. According to the initial designs, the Marsbees would collect data and images from Mars just like the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers do now. But the drones' small size and large numbers give them a few key advantages.

The Marsbees would be carted onto the planet by way of a conventional rover that acts as a roaming beehive. The bumblebee-sized drones would use flapping apparatuses the size of cicada wings to fly around Mars, capturing data individually or swarming together to analyze larger swaths of land. If one robot fails, there would be more to make up for the missing sensor, and after gathering enough information they could return to the ground-based hub to recharge and relay the data back to Earth.

The team still needs to perfect a prototype before the swarms of Martian bees can become a reality. Wing size is a crucial factor, since the atmosphere on Mars is thinner than it is on Earth. Once they have that design element in place, the engineers still need to prove their drones can take off, land, navigate through the air, and complete missions. They hope to tackle each of those points in the first phase of the project using a $125,000 grant from NASA.

Concept art for marsbees.
C. Kang, NASA

[h/t Co.Design]

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NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Space
Send Your Name to Space on NASA's Latest Mars Lander
NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Humans may not reach Mars until the 2030s (optimistically), but you can get your name there a whole lot sooner. As Space.com 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.

[h/t Space.com]

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