Tag Archives: ExoMars 2020

More parachute problems for ExoMars 2020?

Space is hard: Eric Berger at Ars Technica reported yesterday that the parachute issues for Europe’s ExoMars 2020 mission are far more serious that publicly announced.

The project has had two parachute failures during test flights in May and then August. However,

The problems with the parachutes may be worse than has publicly been reported, however. Ars has learned of at least one other parachute failure during testing of the ExoMars lander. Moreover, the agency has yet to conduct even a single successful test of the parachute canopy that is supposed to deploy at supersonic speeds, higher in the Martian atmosphere.

Repeated efforts to get comments from the project about this issue have gone unanswered.

Their launch window opens in July 2020, only about ten months from now. This is very little time to redesign and test a parachute design. Furthermore, they will only begin the assembly of the spacecraft at the end of this year, which is very very late in the game.

When the August test failure was confirmed, I predicted that there is a 50-50 chance they will launch in 2020. The lack of response from the project above makes me now think that their chances have further dropped, to less than 25%.

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ESA confirms ExoMars parachute test failure

You heard it hear first! The European Space Agency (ESA) today confirmed earlier stories from last week that the parachutes for its ExoMars 2020 spacecraft had failed during a high altitude drop test on August 5.

I reported this on Saturday, August 10, noting that ESA had not confirmed it. It apparently took them a week to write the press release.

This was the second consecutive test failure for these parachutes, as noted in the release.

On 28 May this year, the deployment sequence of all four parachutes was tested for the first time from a height of 29 km – released from a stratospheric helium balloon. While the deployment mechanisms activated correctly, and the overall sequence was completed, both main parachute canopies suffered damage.

Following hardware inspection, adaptations were implemented to the design of the parachutes and bags ready for the next high-altitude test, which was conducted on 5 August, this time just focusing on the larger, 35 m diameter, parachute.

Preliminary assessment shows that the initial steps were completed correctly, however damages to the canopy were observed prior to inflation, similar to the previous test. As a result, the test module descended under the drag of the pilot chute alone.

The tests occur at high altitude where the Earth’s atmosphere mimics the thin atmosphere of Mars. In both cases it appears the parachutes became damaged very early in their deployment process, possibly during deployment. This means there might be a design problem with the deployment process. It also means that both tests were unable to test the chutes themselves, as they were damaged before inflation, meaning that the engineers still do not know if they would work as intended once filled with air.

All this puts incredible time pressure on the mission, which needs to launch in the summer of 2020 to meet its launch window. There is very little time to redesign and retest these chutes. I would rate their chances of meeting that launch date as less than 50-50.

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ExoMars 2020 parachutes damaged during test

Bad news: The parachutes for the European/Russian ExoMars 2020 mission were damaged during a parachute test.

A May 28 test of the parachute system used a high-altitude balloon above the Swedish Space Corporation’s Esrange test site in northern Sweden. The test was intended to demonstrate the end-to-end performance of the entire system, including both the pilot and main chutes as well as the mortars used to extract the pilot chutes.

ESA said that the first main parachute suffered several radial tears in its fabric, all occurring before reaching its maximum load. The second main parachute also suffered a single tear, also before peak loading.

The other parts of the parachute system worked as expected, and ESA said “a good level of the expected aerodynamic drag was nevertheless achieved” despite the damage sustained by the parachutes. However, the agency acknowledged that the problem needs to be understood and corrected prior to the mission’s launch in one year.

They can easily get the parachutes repaired before the July 2020 launch. The problem is figuring out what caused the damage and fixing that in the time left. They already had planned two more parachute tests, but these cannot happen prior to all the fixes, and then they have to work.

Considering that they will only assemble the spacecraft at the end of this year, I am increasingly thinking that ExoMars 2020 will not launch in 2020. And if it does, I will not be surprised if it turns out to be a failure.

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Trace Gas Orbiter shifts orbit to prepare for ExoMars rover arrival

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, in orbit around Mars, is about to make the final shifts to its orbit to place it in the right position to relay communications from the ExoMars 2020 rover, Rosalind Franklin, when it land on Mars in 2020.

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ExoMars prototype test driven from 6,000 miles away

The engineering team that will drive ExoMars 2020 on the surface of Mars in 2021 has completed a test drive using an engineering prototype, controlling it from more than 6,000 miles away.

Experts at the European Space Agency’s centre in Oxfordshire completed a series of tests across nearly 6,900 miles (11,000 km) in order to see how the Mars rover reacts to commands across large distances.

When on the surface of Mars, the rover will need to be controlled when it is up to 250 million miles from Earth.

The trials team used a new model called ‘Charlie’ to test hardware, software and to practice science operations for the future European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars rover, which will look for life on Mars in 2021. The Atacama desert was chosen because it is the closest we can get to a Martian-like environment.

I must admit that every press release from Europe about ExoMars 2020 gives me worried chills. Each release is often filled too much with empty boasts and little substantive detail. Worse, each seems to repeatedly remind me of some guy working in his garage on a weekend project.

The issue could merely be a case of poor press release writing, but something about each release makes these alarm bells go off in the back of my mind. With the launch only about sixteen months away, I hope I am wrong.

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UK names rover for 2020 ExMars mission

The United Kingdom has named its rover for 2020 ExMars mission in honor of Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists who contributed to the discovery of the helix structure of DNA.

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA. Her data was a part of the data used to formulate Crick and Watson’s 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA. Unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix. Her work supported the hypothesis of Watson and Crick and was published third in the series of three DNA Nature articles. After finishing her portion of the DNA work, Franklin led pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses. Franklin died from ovarian cancer at the age of 37, four years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA.

Though this isn’t entire clear from the press release, it appears that they will refer to the rover as either “Rosalind Franklin” or “Rosalind.”

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The ExoMars 2020 landing site

ExoMars 2020 landing site

Last week the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the final chosen landing site for their 2020 ExoMars rover, a region called Oxia Planum.

Since then they have posted several detailed overview maps describing this region. The image on the right, reduced slightly to post here, shows the final two candidate elliptical landing sites in black, with Oxia Planum on the left. The caption for this image adds this tantalizing detail:

Both landing site candidates lie close to the transition between the cratered northern highlands and the southern lowlands of Mars. They lie just north of the equator, in a region with many channels cutting through from the southern highlands to the northern lowlands. As such, they preserve a rich record of geological history from the planet’s wetter past, billions of years ago.

To understand better what they mean by this, we need to zoom out.
» Read more

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Europe picks landing site for its ExoMars 2020 rover

The European Space Agency (ESA) has chosen the landing site for its ExoMars 2020 rover, a generally flat area with scattered craters dubbed Oxia Palum.

After over 4 years of careful study of HiRISE and more recently CaSSIS images Oxia Planum was chosen because scientists were convinced that its fine grained sediments, deposited during the ancient Noachian epoch were ideally suited for the Exobiology rover. With an enormous catchment area the sediments will have captured organics from a wide variety of environments over a long period of time, including areas where life may have existed. The fine sediments should also be ideal for the ExoMars drill – it aims to get to 2 metres depth.

Remote identification with the Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Infrared spectrometers shows the presence of clays and other minerals giving clues to its aqueous history. A large group of scientists have been working on proposing, characterising and down selecting the sites, all of which had fascinating aspects, but Oxia Planum is the clear winner on both science and engineering constraints.

Based on my analysis of the last two candidate sites, I would guess that they also picked Oxia Planum because it is less spectacular, flatter, and thus poses less risk. It also means the images from there will be a bit more boring for the ordinary person.

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Europe initiates website to name ExoMars 2020 rover

The European Space Agency has created a website where people can offer their suggestions to name the ExoMars 2020 rover.

Astronaut Tim Peake is leading the hunt for a great moniker. He wants everyone to go to a special website set up for the purpose and enter a suggestion. But don’t think “Spacey McSpaceFace” is a goer because this is not an online poll. All ideas will be put before an expert panel and it is they who will make the final choice.

If all goes right, 2020 should see two new rovers arrive on the Martian surface.

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The two candidate landing sites for ExoMars2020

The June release of new images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) included three images of the two candidate landing sites for Europe’s 2020 ExoMars rover mission. All three images provide us as hint at what that rover might see when it arrives a few years from now.

ExoMars 2020 landing sites

The two candidate sites are locations on Mars dubbed Mawrth Vallis and Oxia Palas. The map to the right shows their general location to the east of Mars’s giant volcanoes and giant canyon Valles Marineris. The red splotches indicate the large number of images taken by MRO of these locations, partly to help the ExoMars science team choose which site to pick and partly to study the geology in these Martian locations. As you can see, both candidate sites are in the transition zone between the northern low plains and the southern highlands.

At first glance Mawrth Vallis seems the more spectacular site. Mawrth (Welsh for Mars) is one of the gigantic drainage canyons near Valles Marineris. Though tiny in comparison to Valles Marineris, on Earth it would easily rival the Grand Canyon in size, and in fact is slightly longer (400 miles versus 300 miles). Unlike the Grand Canyon, however, Mawrth Vallis doesn’t appear to have a distinct or obvious rim. This video, produced by the European Space Agency using images from its Mars Express orbiter, gives a sense of the canyon’s terrain as it flies upstream from the northern lowlands to the canyon’s high point in the southern highlands. The highlands on either side of the canyon more resemble the broken geology of Mars’s chaos regions that are found scattered about in this transition zone than the flat generally level Kaibab plateau that surrounds the Grand Canyon.

Mawrth Vallis

The image on the right is a tiny crop from the most recently released MRO image. The full image shows a strip of the upper plateau south of canyon and near its inlet from the southern highlands. This crop reveals a surface that is a wild mixture of colors and complex geology. In fact, in a 2017 MRO image release showing a different place in Mawrth Vallis, the canyon was dubbed a “painted desert.” To quote that release:

The clay-rich terrain surrounding Mawrth Vallis is one of the most scenic regions of Mars, a future interplanetary park. …The origin of these altered layers is the subject of continued debates, perhaps to be resolved by a future rover on the surface. We do know that these layers are very ancient, dating back to a time when the environment of Mars was wetter and more habitable, if there were any inhabitants.

Other MRO images of Mawrth Vallis here and here emphasize this description.

As for Oxia Palas, the other candidate landing site for ExoMars 2020, in the June MRO image release there were two images.
» Read more

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ESA successfully completes first parachute test for 2020 ExoMars mission

Early in March the European Space Agency successfully completed the first of a series of parachute tests for its 2020 ExoMars rover mission.

The focus of the latest test, conducted in sub-zero conditions in Kiruna, Sweden earlier this month, was the 35 m-diameter second main parachute. The test demonstrated the deployment and inflation of the parachute with its 112 lines connected to a drop test vehicle, via the deployment of a smaller 4.8 m-wide pilot chute.

This test only tested the parachutes deployment system. They still need to do this test at high altitudes to duplicate Mars’ conditions using high-altitude balloons.

When ExoMars reaches Mars, the parachute will act to slow the spacecraft down during descent. For the actual landing, they will be using systems designed and built by the Russians.

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Putin promises a Russian Mars mission in 2019

The new colonial movement: In a documentary released this week Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged that his country will send an unmanned mission to Mars in 2019, and that it will be aimed at studying water at the red planet’s poles.

This is funny. Putin is likely referring to ExoMars 2020, which Russia is partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA). In that mission, Russia is providing the rocket and the descent and landing technology for ESA’s rover. To claim that this is a Russian mission is a bit of an over-statement, since the only Mars-related equipment Russia is building involves the landing, and the ESA is also participating in that work.

Nonetheless, Putin’s words here illustrate how the competition is heating up. Every nation wants its share of the exploration of the solar system, and they are beginning to ramp up their efforts to make that happen.

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ESA narrows landing site choice for ExoMars 2020 to two

The European Space Agency has narrowed its choice of landing sites for its ExoMars 2020 rover mission.

Two ancient sites on Mars that hosted an abundance of water in the planet’s early history have been recommended as the final candidates for the landing site of the 2020 ExoMars rover and surface science platform: Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis.

A primary technical constraint is that the landing site be at a suitably low level, so that there is sufficient atmosphere to help slow the landing module’s parachute descent. Then, the 120 x 19 km landing ellipse should not contain features that could endanger the landing, the deployment of the surface platform ramps for the rover to exit, and driving of the rover. This means scrutinising the region for steep slopes, loose material and large rocks.

Oxia Planum was selected in 2015 for further detailed evaluation. Although not yet complete, the investigation so far indicates that the region would meet the various constraints.

They will spend the next year evaluating both sites, though based on the press release it sounds as if Oxia Planum is the favorite.

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ESA signs contract for construction of its part of ExoMars 2020

On Friday the European Space Agency signed a contract with Thales Alenia Space for the construction of the European portion of the ExoMars 2020 lander/rover mission.

The contract signed in Rome, Italy, secures the completion of the European elements and the rigorous tests to prove they are ready for launch. These include the rover itself, which will be accommodated within the Russian descent module, along with the carrier module for cruise and delivery to Mars. ESA is also contributing important elements of the descent module, such as the parachute, radar, inertial measurement unit, UHF radio elements, and the onboard computer and software. The science instruments for the rover and surface platform are funded by national agencies of ESA member states, Roscosmos and NASA following calls to the scientific community.

I had missed this last week. The Thales Alenia press release has more information.

I wish them luck, especially the Russians, whose luck with missions to Mars has been truly terrible. I suspect that the Russians will use some variation of their bouncing balloon technology for the lander, which worked on their 1960s lunar rover missions and was successfully copied by NASA for its 1997 Pathfinder/Sojourner rover mission.

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ESA approves ExoMars 2020 funding

Despite the failure of the Schiaparelli lander on ExoMars 2016, the European Space Agency today approved funds to build and fly the ExoMars 2020 rover mission.

At a meeting of European government ministers in Lucerne, Switzerland, on 1 and 2 December, ESA member states agreed to provide an extra €339 million for ExoMars 2020. ESA also announced that it will find a further €97 million by moving funds internally. Speaking at a press briefing after the meeting, ESA director-general Jan Wörner said this would be done “without detriment” to ESA’s wider science budget.

But not all projects were so fortunate. Member states did not commit the €250 million needed to fund a plan for ESA to participate in a mission to deflect the moon of an asteroid, although they left door open to future, similar projects.

I am not at present sure how they are going to divide up the work between Europe and Russia. Earlier it was my understanding that Russia would provide the roving technology, but right now I am very unsure about this.

One side note: At this same meeting ESA committed to sticking with ISS through 2024.

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