Europe, Russia embark on search for life on Mars

With its suite of high-tech instruments, the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO, should arrive at the Red Planet on October 19 after a jou
With its suite of high-tech instruments, the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO, should arrive at the Red Planet on October 19 after a journey of 496 million kilometres (308 million miles)

Europe and Russia are set to launch an unmanned spacecraft Monday to smell Mars' atmosphere for gassy evidence that life once existed on the Red Planet, or may do so still.

ExoMars 2016, the first of a two-phase Mars exploration, will see an orbiter hoisted from Kazakhstan at 0931 GMT Monday on a Russian Proton rocket.

With its suite of high-tech instruments, the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO, should arrive at the Red Planet on October 19 after a journey of 496 million kilometres (308 million miles).

Its main mission to photograph the Red Planet and analyse its air, the TGO will also piggyback a Mars lander dubbed Schiaparelli.

"Rocket rollout—our 2016 mission is at the launch pad!" the European Space Agency (ESA) tweeted Friday.

ExoMars is a two-step collaboration between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos space agency.

The second phase, a Mars rover due for launch in 2018, seems likely to be delayed over money worries.

But the first phase is going ahead as planned, and with high expectations: "Determining whether Mars is 'alive' today", according to an ESA document.

A key goal is to analyse methane, a gas which on Earth is created in large part by living microbes, and traces of which were observed by previous Mars missions.

Picture released by the European Space Agency shows the Russian Proton rocket that will launch the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft durin
Picture released by the European Space Agency shows the Russian Proton rocket that will launch the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft during its transfer to the launch pad

"TGO will be like a big nose in space," according to Jorge Vago, ExoMars project scientist.

Methane, the ESA said, is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation within a few hundred years, which implied that in Mars' case "it must still be produced today."

The question is: By what?

Methane can either be generated in a biological process, such as microbes decomposing organic matter, or geological ones involving chemical processes in hot liquid water under the surface.

TGO will analyse Mars' methane in more detail than any previous mission, said ESA, to try and determine its likely origin.

Picture released by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows technicians working on the final preparations on one of two ExoMars sp
Picture released by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows technicians working on the final preparations on one of two ExoMars spacecraft

Anybody out there?

Another key element of the ExoMars 2016 mission is Schiaparelli, named after a 19th century Italian astronomer whose discovery of "canals" on Mars caused people to believe, for a while, that there was intelligent life on our neighbouring planet.

Schiaparelli is a "demonstrator" module to test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for a subsequent rover landing on Mars, a feat ESA said "remains a significant challenge".

During its few live days on the surface of Mars, Schiaparelli will also measure atmospheric particles, wind speed and temperatures.

The TGO's main science mission is scheduled to last until December 2017, but it has enough fuel to continue operations for years after, if all goes well.

Today's Martian surface is considered too dry and radiation-blasted for living organisms to survive, but conditions would have b
Today's Martian surface is considered too dry and radiation-blasted for living organisms to survive, but conditions would have been much more comfortable—warmer and wetter—some 3.5 billion years ago

As for the next phase, ESA director general Jan Woerner has mooted a possible two-year delay, saying in January: "We need some more money" due to cost increases.

The rover has been designed to drill up to two metres (2.2 yards) into the Red Planet in search of organic matter, a key indicator of life past or present.

Scientists widely accept that liquid water, an essential ingredient for life, once flowed on Mars.

Last September, researchers unveiled "the strongest evidence yet" the planet may still host water in the form of super-salty streaks of brine.

Today's Martian surface is considered too dry and radiation-blasted for living organisms to survive, but conditions would have been much more comfortable—warmer and wetter—some 3.5 billion years ago.

"Establishing whether life ever existed on Mars, even at a microbial level, remains one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time," said ESA, "and one that lies at the heart of the ExoMars programme".

The mission derives its name from the scientific term for the search for life beyond Earth—exobiology.


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Video: Launch to Mars

© 2016 AFP

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Mar 12, 2016
The title is overly optimistic.

ExoMars was descoped to carry instruments for biosignatures, and will hence only constrain unarguably to life only under certain conditions.

The full complement of instruments carried the Life Marker Chip, which used antibodies for detection and so, I think, feasibly could have detected unambiguous signatures like chirality. [ https://en.wikipe..._(rover) ]

Mar 12, 2016
Let's hope European meters and Russian meters stayed the same and Railway gauges were not involved in the mission design.

Mar 12, 2016
Is it more than a little embarassing that we've been sending landers to Mars for FORTY YEARS NOW and we *still* don't know if there is - or was - any life there?

Or is that just me?

Mar 12, 2016
It's just you. =D

The Viking landers did the overly optimistic attempt 40 years ago - and failed miserably since the experiments wasn't constrained enough (didn't account for abiotic oxidizers) - and consequently there was first 20 years of nothing and then 20 years of the sort of step by step exploration that is needed.

The alternative would be to sent paleontologists there who can do the necessary sample return to analysis labs quicker. But we all know how much quicker that entire program has been. (Much, much slower.)

As a comparison, it took something like 100 years between Laplace discovered the deep sea until exploration was attempted and life was discovered there. [ https://en.wikipe...loration ]

Mar 12, 2016
Yeah Larrson, it's just that a lot of us baby boomers thought everything would get figured out in our lifetime, after all everything always gets resolved in a 1hour TV action drama! OMG, you mean this is a soap opera?

Mar 14, 2016
I don't understand why we are still wasting time and money looking for life when we could be putting life there. It's going to take a long time to make that planet livable and we need to get
started on that process now.

Mar 15, 2016
@24Volts: Because science!

It is more valuable scientifically, technologically (colony conditions) and socially (the oldest standing question in human history: are we alone) to answer the question than to cut out a few decades of a project that will cover generations (up to thousands of years if you want to make the surface habitable).

It is certainly not 'wasting' time and money, since science is such a high ROI business. [NASA figures.] Questions are good, but I wish this misconception wasn't repeated fully as often. It is wasting other's time and money...

Mar 16, 2016
If there is any life on mars it is nothing but microbes at best. That will not tell us whether we are alone. It's a big universe and it's very unlikely we are the only sophonts around. It IS a waste of money just to keep sending rovers regardless of what you say. Tell me exactly what worthwhile science we have learned by examining rocks. Maybe useful stuff learned in building the rovers but not anything worth spending millions and millions of dollars on once we actually got there. Wow, so far we found out there is water there.....wow.....woopie... there is water on just about every planet in the solar system... nothing really new there.

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