Tomorrow (Wednesday 19 October) the European Space Agency (ESA) will attempt to land its probe Schiaparelli on the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli is named after the 19th Century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who is most famous for observing “canali” on the surface of Mars in 1877. Whereas the word means “channels” in English, it got mis-translated as “canals”, and led to a furore of interest in the possible existence of artificial irrigation channels which it was suggested had been built by Martians to transfer water from the poles to the arid equatorial regions.
All of this was, of course, wrong; but it led to a surge of interest in Mars, including Percival Lowell establishing his observatory in Flagstaff and spending decades observing the red planet. It was this observatory which in the 1910s found the first evidence for the redshift of spiral nebulae (Vesto Slipher), and where, in 1930, Pluto was discovered.ESA has only attempted once before to land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars; Beagle 2 crash landed in December 2003 and failed to operate. Schiaparelli is a 600-kg lander which is being transported to Mars by its mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter. Both are part of ESA’s ExoMars project, which will put a rover on the surface of Mars in 2021.
Schiaparelli is what is referred to as a “demonstrator”, as its purpose is to test various technologies for the landing of the ExoMars rover in 2021. It is planned that Schiaparelli will only operate for a few days, but I suspect that it will end up operating for longer than this. Let us hope that it has a better landing that Beagle 2!