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European Space Agency sends final command sequence as its spacecraft approaches Mars

The European Space Agency uploaded the last of its commands to the ExoMars spacecraft, telling the spacecraft what to do once it arrives at the Red Planet on October 19. The instructions include details on when the Schiaparelli probe should disengage from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership and how the lander should conduct its descent and touchdown on Mars.

The commands arrived over the course of a few days last week. The first, sent on October 3, functioned like an alarm clock, waking the probe up from its months-long hibernation and providing a timeline for the operation of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments. Four days later, the mission command sequence arrived.

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“Uploading the command sequences is a milestone that was achieved following a great deal of intense cooperation between the mission control team and industry specialists,” Orbiter flight director Michel Denis said in a press release.

The ExoMars (ExoBiology on Mars) mission is a two-part joint venture between the ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), with the primary goal to find signs of past or present life on Mars.

The first phase of the mission, which saw the TGO and Schiaparelli probe launch in March, will involve a rendezvous with the Red Planet later this month. At that time, Schiaparelli will separate from the TGO and dive into the Martian atmosphere. The command sequence sent last week is intended to keep the probe on course before a parachute deploys to slow the craft’s descent and the lander disengages its protective entry shield, firing a set of thrusters to settle into a soft landing.

The agencies hope to test and demonstrate key technologies in this first phase that will be employed in the second phase, which will see a rover land on Mars to search for life in 2020.