Illustration of ESA's Schiaparelli module landing with thrusters firing. Credit: ESA/ATG-medialab/ M.Thiebaut

If all goes well on Wednesday, the European Space Agency will be celebrating the historic landing of its first spacecraft on Mars. The disc-shaped Schiaparelli lander was deployed from its mothership, the TGO (Trace Gas Orbiter), on Sunday, after making a seven-month journey across the solar system. The craft is now in the midst of a three-day approach to the Red Planet, which will culminate in a blazing final descent at 21,000 KM/H, lasting only six minutes from atmosphere to surface.

The Schiaparelli, named for Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, is part of the Euro-Russian ExoMars program which aims to answer the question: Is there or was there ever life on Mars? The lander’s counterpart and mothership, TGO, will lock into orbit and probe for methane in the atmosphere while Schiaparelli monitors the landscape below, testing new technologies. Scientists believe the presence of methane could signal the existence of life, now or millions of years in the past.

This initial mission is laying the groundwork for the ESA’s second phase of the ExoMars program, which will send Europe’s first robotic rover to Mars in 2020. The rover’s mission will be primarily focused on detecting life, and it will be the first spacecraft capable of traversing Mar’s surface while drilling to collect samples and conduct analysis.