The inexorable search for life on Mars has been ramping up in recent weeks. On Monday, two automated probes were launched into space by a Russian Proton rocket, as part of a collaborative effort between the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). The two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli Entry – were launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan in the early hours of Monday morning and will take seven months to reach the red planet. The ExoMars programme is designed to further explore the possibility of life on Mars, and will make use of both orbital and terrestrial studies in order to gain a more complete picture of our closest celestial neighbour.
The Trace Gas Orbiter will measure the composition of gases in Mars’ orbit (in particular, methane) while the Schiaparelli vessel will be based on the planet’s surface. It will be significant if the Schiaparelli vessel is able to touch down on Mars undamaged – as it will allow the team to send a rover to Mars in 2018, which will carry out an important role collecting dirt samples from the surface. It is hoped that the Trace Gas Orbiter will detect methane specifically, since it has been crucial to the development of life. Reportedly up to 90 per cent of the methane found in the Earth’s atmosphere is derived from the dissolution of biological materials. It has been much disputed over the years whether methane is in fact present on Mars; thus it is hoped that the ExoMars mission will help finally prove its existence on Mars.
The Trace Gas Orbiter is well equipped with the latest technology to make accurate predictions as to the composition of Mars’ atmosphere. It is not expected to be until late 2017, however, that the team behind the ExoMars mission will be able to gather any meaningful results, as the orbiter needs time to ‘acclimatise’ to Mars’ orbit, a process which will take just over a year. The Schiaparelli vessel requires less time to carry out its tasks. However, it faces the challenge of descending through the Martian atmosphere, and given that it is 1/100th the pressure of the Earth’s, there is far less air to decrease the speed of an object falling to its surface. If successful, Schiaparelli’s internal battery is projected to last for around two to five days, during which it will analyse the weather and atmospheric conditions on Mars.
There is a great sense of excitement surrounding this mission, with Alvaro Gimėnez, Director of Science at the European Space Agency hailing the launch as an important step in exploration on Mars. He commented that it will be “significant in paving the way for the second ExoMars mission, which will move our expertise from in-orbit observations to surface and subsurface exploration of Mars.”