The European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars program (Exobiology on Mars) is a series of missions designed to understand if life ever existed on Mars. Just as other countries often participate in NASA Mars missions, NASA contributes scientific, engineering, and technical expertise to other world efforts to explore the Red Planet. The first mission in the ExoMars program is called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), undertaken in partnership between ESA and Russia's Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter studies the Martian atmosphere for the presence of methane and other gases that may be present in small concentrations. The Schiaparelli EDL Demonstration Module entered the Martian atmosphere at 14:42 UTC on 19 October, but ESA's mission team lost contact shortly before expected touchdown.
NASA's participation in the 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter includes the "Electra" telecommunication radios. Used successfully on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Electra acts as a communications relay and navigation aid for Mars spacecraft. Electra's UHF radios support navigation, command, and data-return needs.
Electra enables precision navigation. As an Electra-carrying spacecraft, ESA's 2016 orbiter can communicate with arriving spacecraft with similar Electra payloads in order to determine their position and speed in relation to Mars upon their approach.
After incoming landers and rovers have arrived safely on the surface of Mars, Electra can provide precise Doppler data. When combined with ESA's 2016 orbiter position information, this Doppler data can accurately determine the location of the lander or rover on the surface of Mars.
Using its nadir-pointed (pointed straight down at the surface) antenna, Electra can also provide UHF coverage to Mars landers and rovers on the surface that may not have sufficient radio power to communicate directly with Earth by themselves.
- Straight outta NASA... Credit: JPL