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European Mars lender headed to Red Planet

European Mars lender headed to Red PlanetA European spacecraft destined to land on Mars detached from its mothership on Sunday, setting the stage for a daring descent to the Red Planet's surface later this week.

The European Space Agency's Mars-bound Schiaparelli module separated from its carrier craft, the Trace Gas Orbite, as both spacecraft were in the home stretch of their 496 million kilometers trek to Mars. If all goes well, the two probes (which make up the ESA-Russian ExoMars 2016 mission) will arrive at the Red Planet on Wednesday, October 19, with Schiaparelli dropping down to the Martian surface as its mothership enters orbit around Mars.

"We can confirm good separation from the Schiaparelli module," ExoMars flight director Michel Denis said during a live ESA webcast from the agency's mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany.

The Wednesday arrival of Schiaparelli and the Trace Gas Orbiter will kick into high gear the first phase of ESA and Russia's ambitious ExoMars project aimed at searching for signs that life ever existed on Mars. A second mission will launch the ExoMars rover and surface science station to Mars in 2020.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) is built to seek out water-ice deposits on or just below the Martian surface, according to an ESA mission overview. It will also investigate the presence of methane in Mars' atmosphere to help scientists learn exactly how the gas — which can be created by geological and biological processes — may have formed. After entering orbit around Mars on Wednesday, TGO will begin a long series of aerobraking maneuvers that should last into 2017, after which its science mission will begin.

The Schiaparelli module, meanwhile, is primarily a demonstrator vehicle to test the entry, descent and landing technology needed to safely land on Mars. It is powered by internal batteries and is designed to last just a few days on the Martian surface, ESA officials have said.

The lander will use a heat shield, a huge parachute and thrusters to land on Meridiani Planum, a vast region of Mars that is also home to NASA's Opportunity rover.
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