The orbiter and test lander of the ExoMars missions are now ready to leave Europe for launch. ExoMars is a joint venture between the Russian Federal Space agency (Roscosmos) and the European Space Agency (ESA), with the key aim of investigating the Martian environment to see if life has ever existed, or possibly still exists, on Mars.
The equipment will be launched in March next year from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it will begin its 7 month journey to the red planet. The orbiter and test lander form the 2016 stage of the programme, with a second stage planned for 2018. The test lander (Schiaparelli) will give ESA the expertise needed to land a rover in this second stage. The Trace Gas Orbiter will manage communications for the programme, and take measurements of gases (and especially methane) in the atmosphere.
The presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere indicates a continuing production of the gas somewhere on the planet (since methane quickly degrades under these conditions). The location of these methane sources should be found by the Trace Gas Orbiter, which will then try to determine what is causing this methane production. One idea is that underground water interacting with rocks is responsible, while the other major idea is that this methane is a result of biological activity.
A rover being sent in the 2018 stage will take rock and mineral samples, searching in particular for areas where organic material is likely to be preserved. Combining this data with evidence from the Trace Gas Orbiter should allow scientists to understand better the plausibility of life on Mars.
Photo: Google, Wikilmages