Europe and Russia Team Up to Search for Life on Mars
In just a few short hours, ExoMars 2016 is scheduled to launch.
The launch is scheduled for 09:31 UTC on Monday 14 March from Baikonur, Kazakhstan where preparations are being made.
ExoMars is an unmanned orbiter designed to test the Martian atmosphere for evidence that life once existed on Mars -- or may yet still.
It's the first of a two-phase approach, originally designed to be followed by a surface rover in 2018, though financial worries may delay this follow-on mission.
ExoMars 2016, dubbed the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO, has a suite of high-tech instruments designed to photograph the Red Planet, but will also analyze the atmosphere, specifically to look for methane.
According to the ESA, methane is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation within a few hundred years, so finding it in the Martian atmosphere implies that "it must still be produced today."
But by what?
On Earth, methane is created in a couple of ways. The first is a natural biological process, such as microbes decomposing organic matter. So -- naturally -- if you find methane, it
Which means life!
But methane can also be created through a chemical reaction of carbon dioxide and water -- just like the Mars Oxygenator, a tool that may one day produce oxygen and methane for rocket fuel on the surface of Mars. So even if it doesn't lead to a discovery of life, it could uncover some exotic chemical and geological processes never before discovered.
Either way, it should make for some great science.
And although traces of methane have been found my NASA rovers, the TGO will analyse Mars' methane in more detail than any previous mission -- to try and determine its likely origin. As Jorge Vago, an ExoMars project scientist, stated:
TGO will be like a big nose in space.
Another key element of the ExoMars 2016 mission is Schiaparelli, a lander "demosntrator" named after a 19th century Italian astronomer who first described the "canals" on Mars.
Schiaparelli is designed to test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for the 2018 rover landing -- if it is not delayed -- a feat ESA says "remains a significant challenge".
Good luck ExoMars!