The “Red Planet”, Mars, has intrigued the imagination for centuries.  Even before the first flyby of the planet by Mariner 4 in 1965 many astronomers speculated about life, water and an atmosphere existing on Mars.  In 1971 the Soviets landed the first man-made object onto the Martian surface, a probe called Mars 2, although it crash-landed.  Less than a month later Mars 3 made the first soft-landing onto the planet.  The most recent probe to land on our neighbouring world was NASA’s Curiosity rover which landed in August 2012.  On November 2013 the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).  This is India’s first mission to the red planet and if it successfully lands the will become the fourth space agency to reach it after Roscosmos (Russia), NASA (USA) and ESA (Europe).


The red planet: Mars Credit: Wikipedia

The red planet: Mars
(Image credit:


Interest in Mars is growing, especially giving the likelihood of a manned mission there, and this is evident with the amount of future space probe missions planned.  One such mission will be part of the ExoMars Program; a collaboration between ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency.  They plan to send the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli Lander in 2016 followed by the ExoMars Rover in 2018.  The aim of the mission will be to search for past or present microscopic life.  The lander will enter the Martian atmosphere at 21 000km/h using parachutes and thrusters to land (hopefully successfully) on the surface.  The module will collect data on the atmosphere during entry and descent and perform measurements at the landing site as well.


The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), along with an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), form the first mission in the ExoMars programme. Credit: ESA

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), along with an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), form the first mission in the ExoMars programme.
(Image credit: ESA)


The landing site is in a region known as Meridiani Planum, close to the Martian equator.  In this region grey crystalline hematite is found.  Hematite is formed in hot springs on Earth thus many scientists believe that this formation on Mars could indicate ancient hot springs existed here or the presence of water at some point in the past.  This landing site was also the spot that the NASA rover Opportunity touched down on.


First colour panorama taken by Opportunity, showing the Martian landscape at Meridiani Planum, shortly after it touched down in 2004 Credit: NASA

First colour panorama taken by Opportunity, showing the Martian landscape at Meridiani Planum, shortly after it touched down in 2004
(image credit: NASA)


The entry, descent and landing module of this mission has been named “Schiaparelli”.  Many of you will be familiar with that surname as it is synonymous with two areas.  The name Schiaparelli is well known in the fashion industry, especially in the early Twentieth Century.  Elsa Schiaparelli was a prominent Italian fashion designer, even rivaling Coco Chanel.  But the ESA lander is not honouring a fashion label; it is named after Elsa’s uncle, Giovanni, who was an astronomer.  When Elsa’s was young, the two of them would spend hours studying the night sky and looking at stars, it’s funny how Elsa would one day be making dresses for the stars!  Her uncle also pointed out that the moles on her cheek formed the pattern of the Big Dipper which she adopted as her nickname.  It is clear that her Uncle Giovanni had a huge impact on her, sharing his love for astronomy, which evidently came out in her creative genius with one of her fashion lines having an astronomy theme.  So let’s look at the man behind the name, and why the mission chose to honour him.


Her Uncle’s influence coming out in Elsa’s creative work! Credit: Met museum

Her uncle’s influence coming out in Elsa’s creative work!
(Image credit: Met Museum)


Giovanni Virginio Schiaparellii (1835 – 1910) was born in Savigliano in Northern Italy.  Born to wealthy parents, he was enrolled in the Gymnasium Lycée of Savigliano at the age of seven.  He then moved onto the University of Turin excelling at applied mathematics and graduated with honours in 1854 in hydraulic engineering and civil architecture.  Upon leaving University Schiaparelli taught maths before leaving for Berlin to study astronomy under Johann Encke (Encke’s Comet is named after him).  He then moved to the Pulkovo Observatory and in 1860 was appointed to the position of second astronomer at the Brera Observatory in Milan.  Two years later he was appointed director and held that position until 1900 when he retired.


The Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli Credit: Wikipedia

The Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli
(Image credit: Wikipedia)


It was during his time in Milan that he began to get involved in observational initiatives.  He discovered the minor planet Hesperia in 1861, but his best discovery was yet to come!  In 1866 he discovered a link between the Perseids meteor shower and the Comet Swift-Tuttle theorising that meteors derived from Comets.  Schiaparelli also observed Saturn, Venus, Mercury and binary stars. But it was in 1877 that a legacy would be formed when he began to study Mars which was in opposition.  A planet is said to be in opposition when it is opposite the sun i.e. when the Sun, Earth and the planet are approximately in a straight line.  When a planet is in opposition it is visible almost all night and appears bigger and brighter.  It is almost completely illuminated and we can see a “full planet”, think of it like seeing a full Moon!


Map of Mars made by Giovanni Credit: Wikipedia

Map of Mars with oceans and landmasses made by Giovanni
(Image credit: Wikipedia)


So Schiaparelli had a great view of the Red Planet whilst it was in opposition.  From his telescope observations he produced surface maps and drew what looked like surface features.  Some of these features he described as “canali” which can translate to channels or canals.  It was this theory that opened up the discussion of Mars having artificial constructions on its surface.  Little did he know that this would become a topic of both great interest and controversy which would last well into the 20th Century.  It is not known if the Italian astronomer meant channels that were naturally-formed features or if he was misinterpreted as comparing them to man-made canals.  His observations however caught the interest of the American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916).  Lowell gave detailed descriptions to back up Schiaparelli’s theory with drawings of what he termed “non-natural features” and believed that Mars was inhabited by intelligent life.  In 1915 larger telescopes studied the Martian surface but could not support the earlier “canali” findings.  It was suggested that what the two men saw were optical illusions resulting from observations with the eye on low-powered telescopes.  As a result of exploration of the planet it is understood that water did exist in naturally forming rivers and valleys in the Martian past, in some way I guess vindicating the hypothesis of Schiaparelli.


: Lowell observing Venus in 1914 Credit: Wikipedia

Lowell observing Venus in 1914
Credit: Wikipedia


It is for his extensive research into Mars that he has been honoured in the ExoMars 2016 mission.  It was a group of Italian scientists that first proposed the honour to the President of the Italian Space Agency who passed the recommendation onto ESA.  “Considering the importance of Giovanni Schiaparelli’s pioneering observations of Mars, it was an easy decision to give his name to the ExoMars module that is paving the way to the future exploration of the Red Planet”, said Alvaro Gimenez, Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at ESA.  He adds, “The Schiaparelli module will not only provide Europe with the technology for landing on Mars, but will also give us a taste of the atmosphere and insight into the local environment at a new location on the planet’s surface, exploration that Giovanni Schiaparelli could only have dreamed of over 135 years ago when he first started sketching the Red Planet.”


Lowering the Schiaparelli lander for vibration tests Credit: ESA

Lowering the Schiaparelli lander for vibration tests
(Image credit: ESA)



So Schiaparelli’s legacy lives on alongside the many prestigious awards he received during his life.  The Royal Astronomical Society presented him a Gold Medal in 1972 for his work on comets and meteoroid stream orbits.  The Bruce Medal was received in 1902 from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.  He was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Science in Turin, the Royal Astronomical Society, the French Academy of Science and the Viennese Academy of Science.  In 1889 the role of senator of the Kingdom of Italy was bestowed upon him and Lunar, Mercurian, and Martian geographic features as well as a minor planet have been named in his honour.  Now the world will once again be familiar with the Schiaparelli name when the lander, named for him takes to the skies and beyond in 2016.

(Article by Sinead Mackle, Education Support Officer)


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