Science

European Mothership Stopped Sending Signal; Scares Mission Control Momentarily

By J Russ I. , Oct 17, 2016 04:15 AM EDT
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Space missions involve a lot of precision and technical maneuvering. A single mistake could ruin years and years of preparation.

So it goes without saying that when a European-Russian orbiter bound to Mars stopped sending status updates, mission control handling the journey got quite the scare. The cut-off occurred early Sunday when the mothership, dubbed Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), released a paddle pool-sized lander towards the red planet.

Mission Control Lost Contact With TGO For An Entire Hour

It was apparently sending signals home when contact was briefly lost, said Michel Denis, the mission's flight director. After a frustrating hour of resetting commands and waiting for a response, TGO finally reconnected with mission control prompting relief breaths from the people handling the operation.

TGO's mission is to deliver a lander, named Schiaparelli, which will be on a three-day mission to the red planet to gather information on temperature, humidity, density profile and electrical properties, according to News. Schiaparelli's main purpose, however, is to test entry on Mars that will provide significant data on landing technology for subsequent rovers that will follow suit.

Aside from ferrying Schiaparelli, TGO will also study the behavior of atmospheric components such as methane, water vapor, and nitrogen dioxide for years to come. These gasses will provide information regarding Mars' current state of activity and if it were produced by living organisms, regardless of their size and primitive development.

Mars Lander Designed To Withstand Physically Demanding Entry To Mars

Schiaparelli is scheduled to land on Mars this Wednesday. It only has six minutes to reduce its 21,000km/h descent to zero so that it can make a relatively soft landing on the planet's dusty surface, said BBC.

The lander's discardable "aeroshell" will protect it from the heat generated by atmospheric entry; a supersonic parachute and nine thrusters are designed to decrease its acceleration, and a crushable structure under the lander will cushion the final impact. Even with all of these protective measures, successful landing isn't for certain as craters and jagged rocks still poses a huge threat to Schiaparelli.

Upon arrival, the lander will then start sending data to mission control, which will take about 10 minutes to reach Earth. TGO will remain aloft and start the 12-month process of bleeding off energy so that it can transition into regular, circular orbit around the red planet.

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