The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission is a joint endeavour by the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian equivalent, RosCosmos. It will demonstrate key technologies for future flight and in-situ exploration missions and will make important scientific discoveries, fundamental to the exploration of Mars. It will also act as a data communications relay for other future Mars missions.
The ExoMars programme consists of two missions.
- The first is the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission described here, of which Belgium and IASB-BIRA have a heavy involvement. It is a mission under ESA lead, consisting of an orbiter and a lander demonstrator (EDL), which was launched in 2016 by a Proton rocket from Kazahkstan.
- The second mission is an ESA rover containing Russian scientific instruments, which will be launched in 2020 by another Proton rocket.
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)
The spacecraft is designed, built and integrated by ESA and includes an Orbiter which will carry the scientific trace gas payload instrumentation and an Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) Demonstration Module.
The spacecraft was launched in March 2016 by a Proton launch vehicle. Arrival at Mars is foreseen in October 2016. The release of the EDL Demonstration Module is planned a few days before the critical Mars Orbit Insertion manoeuvre by the orbiter, after which point the orbiter will be captured by the gravity of Mars.
The orbiter will first follow an elliptical orbit around Mars, which takes 4 sols (a sol is a Martian day). This orbit is maintained during 8 sols.
Then the orbiter moves to a 1 sol orbit and further to a circular orbit with an altitude in the range of 350 to 420 km.
The nominal science mission began in April 2018 and will last for one Martian year (approximately 2 Earth years), after which one or more extended missions may be performed. After the science phase the orbiter will serve as a communications and data relay channel for the ExoMars 2020 mission, a rover, plus other NASA rovers on the surface of Mars.
During the day and occasionally during the night, the nadir instruments will be pointed at the planet's surface. NOMAD observes the total column of atmosphere between the satellite and the surface. During dust storms (see Mars, the planet, NOMAD will study the composition and density of the dust particles.
At the day-night terminators (moments where the satellite sees a sunrise or sunset from its orbital vantage point), the entire satellite rotates to point NOMAD towards the sun. We measure the light from the sun as it passes through the Martian atmosphere; by determining the wavelengths of light that are absorbed, we can deduce the composition and abundance of the atmosphere.
Recent observations of the planet Mars, both from satellites in orbit around Mars as well as from Earth, have indicated the presence of methane. Current photochemical models cannot explain the presence of methane and its variations in space and time. These observations raise questions about the origin of methane, the possible presence and variation of other trace gases, the processes taking place on and below the surface and in the atmosphere of Mars, etc.
These questions lead to the following scientific goals:
- Detect a broad suite of atmospheric trace gases and key isotopes
- Characterise the spatial and temporal variability of methane and other key species
- Localise sources and derive the evolution of methane and other key species and their possible interactions
- Image surface features possibly related to trace gas sources and sinks
Instruments onboard TGO
- NOMAD: A high resolution solar occultation and nadir spectrometer
A suite of three spectrometers designed to detect traces of the components of the Martian atmosphere and to map where they are on the surface
Contact: Ann C. Vandaele, Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, Brussels, Belgium.
- ACS: Atmospheric Chemistry Suite
Three spectrometers for mapping gases, dusts and clouds
- FREND: Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector
An instrument for measuring the hydrogen content of the surface and subsurface
- CaSSIS: Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System
A camera for taking high-resolution images of the Martian surface
|October 2016||EDL Demonstrator – orbiter separation|
|October 2016||Orbiter in elliptical orbit around Mars|
|April 2018||Start Orbiter science phase|
|January 2021||Arrival of 2020 rover mission and rover landing|
|Between April and July 2021||Start data relay for rover|
|April 2020||End of TGO nominal mission, to be followed by one or more extended missions|