Oxia Planum firms at landing site for ExoMars 2018 mission
ESA has named the Oxia Planum region as the primary candidate for the landing site of the ExoMars 2018 Mars mission. The Russo-European mission to the Red Planet is the second of two missions of the ExoMars program and is aimed at demonstrating new technologies and seeking signs of past or present life. Consisting of a lander and rover, the mission is scheduled to launch in May 2018 with a landing in January 2019.
The selection process, which began in December 2013, is seeking an area near the Martian equator that has a suitable exploration site within one km (0.6 mi) of the landing area and other targets of interest along a 2 km (1.2 mi) trek that can be taken over a timeframe of 218 Martian days. Previously, four sites – Aram Dorsum, Hypanis Vallis, Mawrth Vallis and Oxia Planum – were under consideration, with Oxia Planum now regarded as the most promising.
Exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) is a joint two-part mission being carried out by ESA and Russia's Roscosmos. ESA will provide two spacecraft for the first mission in 2016 – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and landing demonstrator Module (EDM). While for the 2018 mission ESA will provide a carrier spacecraft and rover. Meanwhile, Roscosmos will build the 2018 mission's rover descent module and surface platform as well as the launchers for both missions. Both agencies will supply instruments for exploration.
The purpose of the ExoMars program is to demonstrate the technology that will be needed for later missions, such as landing, roving, drilling and sample preparation, with an eye toward an eventual sample return flight from the Red Planet at some future date.
For ExoMars 2018, the rover will be expected to look for possible signs of life in the exploration area, where it is believed that water was once present. The robotic explorer will be equipped with a drill capable of taking samples from 2 m (6.5 ft) under the Martian surface in hopes that signs of life are protected against the harsh radiation and chemical environment of the surface.
While ExoMars 2018 is exploring the surface, ExoMars 2016, which is made up of the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli module, will study the Martian atmosphere with the former acting as a data communications relay for ExoMars 2018 and the latter landing in Meridiani Planum.