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24th Jun 2017

European Space Agency helping Nasa search for life on Mars

  • Nasa team celebrate the landing on Monday (Photo: Nasa/Bill Ingalls)

The quest for life on Mars took a dramatic leap forward when Nasa's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) landed the Curiosity rover on the surface of the red planet in the early morning on Monday (6 August).

"Today is a very, very successful day for space, not only for Nasa but the whole of nations on the globe,” Manfred Warhaut, head of Mission Operations Department at the European Space Agency (Esa) told EUobserver from Darmstadt, Germany.

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Launched in November last year from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force station, the shuttle carrying the rover travelled some 567 million km before slamming into the Martian atmosphere at 20,000 km per hour.

The shuttle slowed down in a matter of minutes, at first due to the planet's thin atmosphere and then by deploying a massive parachute.

Rocket boosters put the craft into a complex hovering manoeuvre at about 20 meters from the surface. A crane then lowered the nearly 1 tonne rover gently into the Gale Crater that may have once been the site of a river delta.

Explaining the 'seven minutes of terror' when landing on Mars.

Within minutes, grainy low-resolution images were sent back to earth via the Esa's Mars Express satellite, orbiting some 200,000 km above the planet.

The Esa satellite tracked and recorded MSL's entry and landing and is equipped with an on-board interface that also allows it to talk to other Nasa vehicles already on the Martian surface.

Back on earth, the agency's ground network of 35 metre diameter deep-space antennas also supported the landing, standing by as 'hot back-up' to Nasa's own deep-space network.

"We were basically furnishing Nasa" with yet another redundancy on the data transmission from Mars to earth. This was our role this morning, this was our contribution from Europe into the US MSL mission,” said Warhaut.

Esa's New Norcia antenna in western Australia registered MSL's "heart beat" signals and notified Nasa that the rover had landed safely.

Nasa already has two satellites orbiting the planet but both are ageing and are not always reliable, said Warhaut.

"You never know with the systems and complexities that [satellites] could suffer an outage here and there, therefore it is not only better to have a double but a sometimes even a triple redundancy," he said.

Spain also provided the rover's high-gain antenna, which is hexagonally shaped, nearly 1 foot (0.3 meter) in diameter and mounted near the left edge of the rover deck.

Esa's Mars Express, in orbit since 2003, is equipped with more advanced instrumentation and determined, for instance, that there is a substantial amount of sub-surface water in ice form equivalent to half the size of the Mediterranean sea.

Photos taken by the satellite also suggest that the water was once flowing over the planet’s surface.

"The ultimate goal is if there is or was life on Mars. There might be some biological processes still taking place today," said Warhaut.

Curiosity will explore, using 10 instrument-based science investigations, the planet's surface for the next two years with Mars Express standing by in case the Nasa satellites should suddenly malfunction.

EU contributions on the rover itself are minor said Warhaut, but France's space agency CNES contributed a sensor package and Spain's Institute for Astrobiology (CAB) added device to help study the planet’s geology.

Warhout said the efforts between Esa and Nasa will spur greater interoperability, co-operation and standards that would provide an additional boost to space exploration. The findings on the planet could also provide even more research impetus into space exploration.

Esa has its own Mars missions scheduled for 2016 and 2018, but budgetary constraints on Nasa means the US-based agency will no longer participate in Esa's missions.

"Nasa was heavily impacted by significant budget cuts and cost over runs. They had to postpone the mission by two years," said Warhaut.

For its part, Esa says they are not experiencing the budget constraints imposed on Nasa. The agency is composed of 20 member states and expects both its planned missions to get the official go-ahead by Esa's ministerial council in November.

The next step, says Warhaut, is to get samples from the rover back to earth possibly by as early as middle of the 2020s.

Nasa staff following and celebrating Curiosity's touchdown on Martian soil.
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