The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli craft will attempt to land on the Martian surface in the next few hours. It's exciting. It's also nerve-wracking stuff for the dozens of scientists and engineers hoping the probe doesn't suffer the same fate as the Beagle 2 spacecraft.
What is it?
The Schiaparelli lander is designed to monitor aspects of Martian weather. The probe is not directly looking for traces of Martian life, but it will test out a landing system for future missions looking for evidence of life, past or present.
Stephen Lewis of the Open University, who co-heads the team that will receive data from the probe’s engineering sensors during the descent, told The Guardian: “Landing on Mars has always been a perilous endeavour, not least because Mars has an active atmosphere and weather."
“Understanding the atmosphere on Mars now, and how Mars’ climate has changed, is a key part of finding out whether the planet ever had a habitable environment and supports our understanding of our own climate.”
Where is it?
Right now? Probably approaching the Martian surface. If you want live updates on Schiaparelli's progress, click here.
Who's behind this?
The Schiaparelli craft is part of the ExoMars programme, which is a joint project between ESA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. The primary goal of ExoMars is to investigate whether life has ever existed, or does currently exist on Mars.
Schiaparelli is paired with the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which is analysing the Martian atmosphere from on high to find evidence for possible biological or geological activity.
Schiaparelli and the TGO are just one part of the two-part ExoMars programme. In 2020, a European rover and a Russian surface platform will arrive on Mars' surface to search for evidence of life by investigating the planet's surface.
Why should I care?
Have you ever seen Total Recall? OK, I may be falling into the realms of science fiction here, but the Schiaparelli craft is the first baby step into our extraterrestrial future.
If Mars was once habitable, could it be habitable again? Is it harbouring life now? The ExoMars programme will address such fundamental questions and, if it can successfully land crafts on the Martian surface, it opens the door to other fascinating explorations.
Why's it called Schiaparelli?
The the probe is called Schiaparelli after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who was one of the first to map Mars’ surface in the late 1800s.
Schiaparelli identified "channels" on the Martian surface, but this term was mistranslated into English as "canals", which sparked the general public's imagination as to the possibility of life on Mars.
Things could come fully circle as Schiaparelli touches down on the Martian surface and we start to understand the possibilities of life on Mars.
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