ExoMars was supposed to be for Mars what Lewis and Clark were to the exploration of the wild American western frontier: a mission to understand the biological mysteries of the Red Planet. The mission — a joint collaboration by the European Space Agency and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos — was set to make its first major splash on Wednesday when the Schiaparelli lander was supposed to barrel through the Martian atmosphere and land on the planet.
Supposed to is the operative term here — ESAs ExoMars team lost contact with Schiaparelli and has no idea whether it survived its descent to the Red Planet, experienced a fatal crash, or simply lost the ability to communicate with the Trace Gas Orbiter (or TGO, the ‘mothership’ for Schiaparelli and the ExoMars mission as a whole) and any other satellites orbiting Mars. ESA put a positive spin on the setback, emphasizing that Schiaparelli was able to collect critical data during its descent to the surface, and that TGO is working as well as its supposed to be.
It’s an especially devastating blow, considering the fact that Schiaparelli was a test run for a brand new spacecraft entry, descent, and landing system designed for future missions to Mars. That exact same system is set to be used for the launch and delivery of the ExoMars rover in 2020, whose primary goal is to look for signs of past — or present — extraterrestrial life on Mars.
But that ExoMars rover mission is just one of three Martian rover missions taking place next year, arguably making 2020 a banner year for an explosion of Martian knowledge.
NASA is revving up preparations to launch an ExoMars-like mission called Mars 2020, the successor to the Curiosity rover. Its primary scientific objective is, like ExoMars, to search for evidence of extant or current Martian organisms, and to assess the historical and present potential for habitability on the Red Planet. Mars 2020 will be very, very similar to the Curiosity rover and use a very similar entry-descent-landing system — it’s a tried-and-true method that’s worked for NASA in the past, so why mess with a good thing? The biggest difference between those two little buggers, however, is that Mars 2020 will be specifically fitted with instruments relevant to astrobiology.
That’s not to say ExoMars and Mars 2020 are copycats — far from it. Mars 2020 will be tasked with collecting samples that NASA expects to retrieve on a future mission, then return to Earth for more in-depth analysis. ExoMars, on the other hand, will test out mechanisms relevant to extraterrestrial sample retrieval, but the actual sample return task for ExoMars is set aside for an unnamed, unplanned future mission.
We all know three’s company — and that’s why China is joining the Martian robot rave, with plans to launch its own rover to the Red Planet in 2020 as well. Details are sparse, but the scientific goals behind that mission seem more generalized than ExoMars and Mars 2020.
So far, China’s space missions have been focused much more around establishing technological feasibility for space travel rather than actually conducting science. There are some exceptions, most notably that one time China’s lunar rover helped uncover some pretty strange history in the moon’s geology. But if China expects its Mars rover to actually ascertain something new about Mars, it will need to possess the kind of state-of-the-art instruments ESA/Roscosmos and NASA are building for their respective rovers.
Ultimately, the mission that’s most likely to conduct some groundbreaking science on Mars is Mars 2020. NASA’s been launching and operating these robotic bad boys since the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. The agency knows what it’s doing.
Russia’s previous Martian rover missions occurred in 1971, but that ended in epic failure. So did ESA’s Beagle 2 mission in 2003. In that vein, it’s not entirely surprising to see that contact with Schiaparelli was lost. If the Schiaparelli saga proves anything, it’s that Mars missions are an intricate, lucky, flaky science, and 2020 has many surprises in store for us.