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Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli
An artist’s conception show the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter releasing the Schiaparelli lander for its descent to Mars. (Credit: D. Ducros / ESA)

For the first time in 13 years, the European Space Agency has put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars – and has sent a piggyback lander to an unknown fate on the Red Planet’s surface.

Flight controllers at ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, cheered the news that the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was back in contact after rounding Mars today. The last time an ESA orbiter arrived at the Red Planet was back in 2003, with Mars Express.

“We have two satellites around Mars,” flight director Michel Denis declared.

Denis and the rest of his team were still waiting to hear from the Schiaparelli lander, which was launched along with the orbiter in March, and was released on Sunday for its descent.

ESA expected to hear confirmation that the 7-foot-wide, saucer-shaped craft had touched down via a radio telescope in India, but signals from the probe faded away toward the end of its descent.

Telemetry relayed later via Mars Express was inconclusive, ESA reported in a series of tweets:

The mission team hasn’t given up on Schiaparelli, but the circumstances were similar to those surrounding the Beagle 2 lander, which was sent down to the surface by Mars Express on Christmas Day, 2003. That probe also went out of contact just as it was landing.

No sign of Beagle 2 was detected until last year, when NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured images of the dead spacecraft.

The Schiaparelli mission, named after the Italian astronomer who first reported seeing “canali” or channels on the Martian surface in the 19th century, is primarily aimed at testing the technologies for entry, descent and landing on Mars. Getting those technologies right will be essential for the landing of ESA’s ExoMars rover in 2021.

Schiaparelli also has a suite of scientific sensors to measure electric fields on the Martian surface as well as dust concentrations and wind speeds.

ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter is designed to analyze the Red Planet’s atmosphere for traces of methane and other potential signatures of life, and in 2021 it will serve as a communications relay for the ExoMars rover.

The lander and the orbiter, as well as the yet-to-be-launched rover and its Russian-built descent module are all part of a $1.5 billion European-Russian ExoMars program that’s proceeding in parallel with NASA’s Mars exploration program. NASA plans to launch its own rover to Mars in 2020.

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