Next stop, Mars!
Two space robotic spacecraft began a seven-month journey to the Red Planet today (March 14), disconnected from the Russian Proton-M rocket launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:31 am Eastern time (3:31 pm Kazakh time).
The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft and the landing module, called Schiaparelli, make up the first part of the two-phase ExoMars program. This is a European-Russian project for the search for life on the Red Planet. The second phase will launch a rover for deepwater drilling in 2018, if you can keep to the current schedule.
ExoMars represents a significant expansion of research on Mars, which has remained at the mercy of NASA for the past two decades. For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) established only one mission on the Red Planet before ExoMars, called Mars Express, launched in 2003. Russia has not yet achieved any interplanetary success (although the same cannot be said about its predecessor - the Soviet Union).
Looking for signs of life
If everything goes according to plan, TGO and Schiaparelli will split up on October 16, as the duo will approach Mars.
On October 19, a TGO weighing 8,220 pounds (3,730 kg) will enter orbit around the Red Planet in order to eventually make its way to a circular orbit about 250 miles (400 kilometers) high. In this vantage point, the spacecraft will study the Martian surface and atmosphere with the help of four different scientific instruments during the five-year mission, which is expected to start in December 2017. The main objective of TGO is the hunt for methane and its decay products in the air of Mars. The overwhelming amount of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere is formed from microbes and other living organisms, therefore gas is considered as a possible sign of life on the Red Planet, if it exists at all.
However, geological processes also generate methane, so gas detection will not be an accurate confirmation of life. After all, NASA's Curiosity rover found a jump with a 10-fold increase in methane levels in late 2013 and early 2014, but mission scientists are still not sure what caused it.
TGO will also do other work. For example, the photos he takes will help the ExoMars team choose a landing site for the rover in 2018. And the solar-powered orbiter will serve as a link between the rover and the Earth.
“The instruments of the orbiter will also create a subsurface hydrogen map at a depth of a meter (3.3 feet) with improved spatial expansion compared to previous measurements,” writes an ESA official when describing TGO. “This makes it possible to detect the deposition of water ice hidden beneath the surface, which, in places considered to be sources of gas traces, may affect the choice of landing future missions.”
Landing on Mars
While TGO comfortably settles in orbit, the 1320-pound (660 kg) ship of the Schiaparelli will move to the Martian surface for a planned landing on October 19. If everything works, the landing will be a historic moment: ESA has never completed successful missions on the surface of another planet. (The ESA lander Beagle 2, which went to the Red Planet with Mars Express, appeared to have landed gently, as planned, but it never sent any data home from the Martian surface. But, it is worth noting that the Huygens lander, part NASA-ESA mission Cassini-Huygens, explored Saturn’s huge moon Titan in early 2005).
Schiaparelli is equipped with several different scientific instruments, including one set that will collect various meteorological data at the probe landing site on the Martian Plateau of Meridian.
But these tools are likely to last for several days, until the Schiaparelli batteries are dead. The main objective of the probe is to prove the entrance, descent and landing of the technologies necessary to open the hunt of the ExoMars rover on the surface for several years from now on.
Europe and Russia unite
ECA leads the ExoMars program and is responsible for most of the spacecraft equipment. NASA was ExoMars' original partner, but the US space agency dropped out in early 2012, citing budget problems. (NASA is currently working on its own rover to search for life, which is scheduled to launch in 2020). Russia joined ExoMars to occupy the vacant place of NASA. The Russian Federal Space Agency, known as Roscosmos, provides missiles for both ExoMars launches, as well as several scientific instruments and a landing platform for the rover in 2018.
ESA and Roscosmos will make a breakthrough if the ExoMars mission ends successfully. Since its release in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR, Russia launched two missions to the Red Planet: Mars 96 and Phobos-Grunt in 2011. None of the devices left the orbit of the Earth.
The Soviet Union, of course, had a long history of exploration of Mars. But while the nation achieved several notable successes — such as the Mars-2 orbiter, which sent photographs of the Red Planet back to Earth in 1971–1972 — most of the Soviet Mars missions failed.
The ExoMars program will cost ESA 1.3 billion euros (about $ 1.45 billion at the current exchange rate).