Mars

The European Space Agency will soon attempt a Mars landing

ESA Exomars 2016

ESA Exomars 2016  (ESA, ATG-medialab)

On Wednesday, the European Space Agency will attempt to land a craft on Mars. It’s a difficult stunt to accomplish— and even if it’s successful, the lander, which will approach the planet at about 13,000 mph, won’t be active for too long.

Both the lander, dubbed Schiaparelli, and a spacecraft called the Trace Gas Orbiter (which will look for signs of gases like methane and is the primary part of the program) are part of a larger mission called ExoMars. While the orbiter will ideally keep working for years, the lander is designed to last just “a few days,” according the ESA. The reason the craft won’t do much is because it’s meant to be a test of the technology needed to land on Mars.

Mars, with a large gravity field but thin atmosphere, is “almost precisely designed to be difficult [to land on],” Scott Pace, the director of the Space Police Institute at George Washington University, told FoxNews.com.

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“The primary point of the [Schiaparelli] mission is really doing a safe entry, descent, and landing,” Pace said, setting the stage for a European rover to be launched in 2020. “Lasting a couple days on the surface with a battery system sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” he said, considering past failures.

One of those failures was the ESA’s 2003 landing of the Beagle 2, Phil Smith, a senior space analyst with the Tauri Group, said in an email to FoxNews.com.

“Only the U.S. and Soviet Union have landed on Mars,” he said. “All Soviet landings were unsuccessful, except one functioned for a few seconds.”

The Schiaparelli lander will employ a mix of a parachute, then thrusters, and finally a crushable section on the bottom to help it survive the landing.

“The lander is designed to test technologies necessary for landing on Mars,” Smith said. “It does have a scientific instrument, but its primary mission is to test a crushable structure designed to absorb impact energy immediately after its landing thrusters have done their job.”

But if it’s successful, the ESA’s accomplishment will be one for the record books.

“If it can be confirmed that Schiaparelli landed intact and its instrument functioned,” he added, “ESA can claim it is the second organization in history to have successfully landed on the martian surface.”

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger