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First European spacecraft to land on Mars

An artist's impression of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which carried the Schiaparelli probe. Credit: PA

A small robot could make history by becoming the first European spacecraft to survive a landing on Mars later.

Scientists will be hoping the Schiaparelli probe successfully flies itself through the Martian atmosphere and lands on Meridiani Planum - an area near the planet's equator rich in haematite.

On Earth, the mineral almost always forms in a watery environment.

The mission, conducted by the European Space Agency (Esa), will test out a landing system for future missions to the Red Planet - including the ExoMars Rover mission in 2020.

The ExoMars Rover will drill into the soil of Mars and look for definitive signs of past or present life.

It is expected the Schiaparelli probe will land at 3.48pm UK time.

Chief scientist Professor Colin Pillinger reacts after losing Beagle 2 in 2003. Credit: PA

The only previous Esa spacecraft to attempt a landing on the planet was British-build Beagle 2 on Christmas Day 2003.

After separating from the Mars Express orbiter that carried it, Beagle 2 was never heard from again.

However in 2015 scientists discovered the Beagle had landed, but its solar panels had failed to deploy.

Mission controllers hope Schiaparelli - part of an ambitious joint European and Russian space effort - will fare better and take photographs of the approaching terrain.

It's certainly a tense time. I'm looking forward to an interesting night's sleep, or lack of it. The classic problem with Mars is its thin atmosphere. If you have a thick atmosphere, it naturally slows you down, and if there's no atmosphere, it's easy. But Mars has a very thin atmosphere that slows you down a bit, but can still cause a lot of problems. It varies a lot; you get waves and ripples which are unpredictable.

Dust impacting on the heat shield can also be a hazard, but I'm told that's one that can be compensated for.

– Dr Manish Patel, Open University

Schiaparelli was taken to Mars on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft, and has crossed a distance of 500 million km on a seven-month journey from Earth.