It’s not easy to land a probe on another planet, which is part of the reason the United States is still pretty much the only country to pull it off successfully. But that could all change later this week.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos are set to (hopefully) land their ExoMars Schiaparelli lander on Mars later this month. The ExoMars mission is designed to survey the Red Planet for geological and biological activity. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will hold down the fort in the skies, while Schiaparelli will drop through the atmosphere and (hopefully) use a braking parachute and thrusters to slow its descent and gently plop down in the dirt. The lander is set to split from the orbiter on Oct. 16 and start its trek toward the surface.
There have been several attempts by international space agencies to land a probe on Mars, but none have really been successful. The closest the ESA came was back in 2003 with the Beagle 2 lander. It did make it to the surface (one heck of a feat in itself), but its solar panels didn’t work and it lost contact with mission control. Russia tried to send a probe to Mars’ moon Phobos, but that payload didn’t even make it into orbit before it burned up.
In addition to being a major proving ground for both space agencies, they hope to perfect the landing tech to eventually send a full-fledged rover in 2020. So there’s a lot riding on this landing going off without a hitch.