Finmeccanica technology heading for Mars
The Red Planet has fascinated humanity since the dawn of time. From Aristotle to Galileo, just to mention some of the most famous names, countless artists and scientists have observed it. The idea of being able to discover traces of life has driven man, as soon as the tools became available, to plan exploration. Since the early 1960s, numerous missions have been launched in Space, both by the Russians and the Americans. There have been many failures, but also many discoveries. The first disconsoling data on its desert-like soil dates back to 1965, whilst the first certainties and photographs came in the 1970s and 1980s. New hopes for the presence of life arose with the discovery of ice in 2008. Both the USA and Russia have returned to Mars several times. Europe, after the 2003 Mars Express mission, will be returning soon on the Red Planet with ExoMars, the new "Martian" adventure that will also be involving Finmeccanica, along with its companies active in the space sector, Thales Alenia Space, Telespazio and Selex ES.
Promoted by ESA (European Space Agency) in collaboration with Roscosmos (the Russian space agency), the ExoMars programme has been designed and developed with the main goal of acquiring and showing the European autonomous capability to carry out a controlled landing on the Martian surface, operate on Martian soil in surface mobility and access the subsoil to take samples for analysis. The main scientific objectives of the mission are the search for past and present traces of life, the geo-chemical characterization of the planet, the awareness of the environment and its geo-physical aspects and the identification of possible risks for future human missions.
The programme is divided into two missions. During the first, with its start date scheduled for January 2016, the TGO (Trace Gas Orbiter) orbiting module will be launched with a Proton vector from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The module will reach the orbit of Mars approximately nine months later and will stay there to investigate the presence of methane and other gases present in the atmosphere, as possible signs of an active life form. Just before reaching the planet's atmosphere, the EDM (Entry and Descent demonstrator Module) module will be released, containing the weather station (Dreams) and other instruments, which will then start its rapid descent towards Mars.
In the second mission, the goal is to take an innovative vehicle to the Red Planet, able to move on the Martian surface, equipped with instruments to penetrate it and analyse the soil. The space vehicle, which will leave the Earth in May 2018, will consist of a Carrier Module and a Descent Module, whose Landing Platform will house the Rover. Approximately seven months later, the descent module will separate from the Carrier to approach the planet's atmosphere, allowing the platform and the Rover to land. Whilst the Landing Platform will continue to measure the environmental parameters of the landing site, the Rover will start exploring the surface for an estimated total of 218 Martian days (approximately 230 earth days). During exploration, the Rover will use the TGO-2016 for communication with the Earth.
ESA has assigned Thales Alenia Space Italia the main leadership of both missions, as well as overall responsibility for the system and all of its elements. For ExoMars 2016, Thales Alenia Space is building in its Turin plant the EDM module, named Schiaparelli in honour of Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, considered one of the most important figures of 19th century Italian astronomy. The orbiting module TGO is instead being integrated at the Thales Alenia Space Cannes plant.
ESA has instead appointed Telespazio, that participates at the programme with its subsidiary Telespazio VEGA Deutschland, to develop the ExoMars Mission Control System (MCS). The system will be used to monitor and control the Trace Gas Orbiter, enabling the mission operations team to monitor and control each change to the space segment systems during the whole of the satellite's operative life. The company will also develop the operative mission simulator which will help the team testing the mission's terrestrial infrastructure, including the Mission Control System, and validate the operating procedures and databases. In 2016, as the launch approaches, the simulator will be used for the intense training of the “Flight Control team” at the ESOC (European Space Operations Center) of Darmstadt, in Germany.
Selex ES makes an important contribution to the ExoMars 2016 mission supplying the photovoltaic generators, two units (PCU – Power Conditioning Unit - and PCDU – Propulsion Control and Distribution Unit) for the transformation and distribution of the electric power to satellite users, the star trackers (STR) for the Trace Gas Orbiter “TGO” and two electric power distribution cards for the CTPU (Central Terminal and Power Unit) assembled onto the EDM module.
As far as the 2018 mission is concerned, Thales Alenia Space Italia will be developing the navigation and guiding system of the Carrier Module and Descent Module, of the Rover system project, including the analytical laboratory development (ALD). Selex ES will be developing the “drill" assembled on the Rover which will drill through the Martian soil, taking samples up to a depth of two metres. The spectrometer MA_MISS (Mars Multispectral Imager for Subsurface Studies) will be inserted inside the drill, to analyse the geological and biological evolution of the Martian subsoil.