On Wednesday, at about 17:42 Moscow time, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in partnership with the European Space Agency, will attempt something it has failed to do since the heyday of the Soviet space program in the 1970s: landing an unmanned probe on the surface of Mars.
The mission, known as ExoMars, has been in the works for years. It is a two-phase cooperative project with ESA, a conglomerate of European national space agencies. Wednesday's mission is considered a demonstration run for a bolder mission slated for 2020.
Despite being one of the most decorated space programs in history, Russia has had an especially challenging time with Mars. The last successful mission was conducted in the early 1970s, but every attempt before and after has failed. The United States, meanwhile, has seen great success there.
The mission is likewise significant for the Europeans, who have never landed a successful probe on Mars. The last European mission, Beagle 2, landed but never deployed its solar panels, and so contact with the probe was lost before it reached the planet's surface.
ExoMars, a 1.5 billion euro ($1.65 billion) project, was conceived as a joint European-American mission to Mars. But in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama adjusted his space agency's course, and NASA withdrew. Roscosmos, eying an opportunity to reach Mars, stepped in to assume the burden.
However, Russia's involvement is heavily stacked toward the later, 2020 ExoMars mission, which will feature a Russian-built landing vehicle carrying a European rover to explore the Martian surface. Russia's main contribution to this first mission is providing the rocket that launched the spacecraft in March. Graphic depicting Sunday's separation of Schiaparelli and TGO near Mars European Space Agency