A Martian orbiter equipped with instruments to detect signs of life and carrying an experimental lander has been launched today by the European Space Agency from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome.
The spacecraft forms the first part of the £924m ExoMars mission – Europe’s first attempt to land on the Red Planet since the ill-fated British Beagle 2 project. It will be followed in 2018 by Europe’s first Martian rover, which is currently being fine-tuned by Airbus Defence and Space engineers in Stevenage.
The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) carrying the Schiaparelli landing demonstrator (named after Italian astronomer and science historian Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli) blasted off from Baikonur at 9.31am GMT aboard a Russian Proton M rocket. Russia became a partner of the ExoMars project in 2012 after budget cuts forced the original partner – Nasa – to withdraw.
The spacecraft is expected to cover the 480 million km journey to Mars in seven months. It is scheduled to reach the orbit of Mars in October, after which the lander will be released to verify the landing concept designed for the rover. Schiaparelli, equipped with instruments for measuring basic characteristics of the planet’s atmosphere, will only remain active for two days upon touchdown.
The orbiter, also designed to serve as a data-relay satellite for the upcoming British-built rover, will focus on detecting trace gases in the atmosphere of Mars. Its number one target will be methane, the organic gas generated on Earth either by bacteria or by geological processes.
The data from TGO could help scientists determine whether methane in the Martian atmosphere could be of biological origin and therefore an indication of past or present life on the planet
"We hope TGO will answer once and for all the question of whether the methane has a biological or geological origin,” Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency told PA.
"If it is shown to be biological, created by life, that would be amazing."
Two years ago, the US Curiosity rover detected higher concentrations of methane on the Martian surface.
"This is a series of missions that's trying to address one of the fundamental questions in science: is there life anywhere else besides the Earth?,” said planetary scientist Peter Grindrod, from Birkbeck, University of London.
"Finding that life exists elsewhere in the solar system would be a huge discovery, so the evidence has to be strong."
Searching for signs of past and present life is also the main goal of the upcoming rover. Equipped with a two-metre drill, the craft will be able to access soil deep under the radiation-damaged surface of Mars, where, scientists believe, the chances are best for any signs of life to have survived.
The landing system for the rover that will be tested by Schiaparelli has been designed by Russian engineers. It will first see the lander slow down mechanically using its heat shield as it hurtles through the thin Martian atmosphere at about five times the speed of sound. Once it slows down to approximately 1,600 km/h, it will deploy a high-speed parachute. The final touchdown will be controlled by three clusters of hydrazine-fuelled retro rockets.
The ExoMars rover will be the first to land on Mars specifically designed to search for signs of past and present life.
Today’s launch is a major milestone for the mission, which almost faced cancellation after Nasa’s withdrawal in 2012.
More about the ExoMars mission: