Planets

Europe's Life-Hunting Mars Mission Ready for Launch

The first mission in a joint European-Russian campaign to look for life on Mars is scheduled for launch on Monday.

The first mission in a joint European-Russian campaign to look for life on Mars is scheduled for launch on Monday.

The primary satellite, called Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO, is designed to circle Mars looking for telltale chemicals in the planet's atmosphere. Of particular interest is methane, which on Earth is mostly tied to biological activity.

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Methane on Mars, which has appeared in inexplicable spurts, is a more complicated story, one that may or may not have to do with indigenous populations of past or living microorganisms.

Easily broken apart by ultraviolet light from the sun, methane should have a fairly short lifetime in the Martian atmosphere so its occasional appearance and puzzling disappearance over particular locations at particular times is one of the biggest mysteries of current-day Mars.

The methane could be a byproduct of subsurface, olivine-rich rocks interacting with water, a geological process known as serpentinization. Another option is that methane was produced long ago and is trapped in ice-like, crystal structures called clathrates, which occasionally melt or break apart, releasing the gas.

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Most alluring is the prospect that methane-producing microbes living deep beneath the planet's radiation-blasted surface are producing the gas today.

With four science instruments, TGO is designed to very precisely map locations and times when methane and other trace gases appear in the atmosphere. That information should help scientists pin down the source.

TGO sets the stage for a more ambitious mission to directly search for life. The ExoMars rover, scheduled for launch in 2018, will be able to tunnel down into the planet's surface and hunt for past and present-day microbes.

TGO is carrying a demonstration lander called Schiaparelli that will collect data during its six-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere.

"It's basically a technology demonstration practice, which we exercise the full process of entry, descent and landing," said ExoMars 2016 project scientist Hakan Svedhem, with the European Space Agency.

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Once on the planet's surface, Schiaparelli's batteries should have enough power for humidity, pressure, temperature and other sensors to operate for a few days.

NASA, which has two rovers currently operating on Mars, has taken a different tact in the quest to learn if the planet most like Earth in the solar system has or ever had life. After discovering many signs of past water on Mars, NASA dispatched the Curiosity rover to see if Mars had the chemical ingredients and environments suitable for terrestrial-like life to exist.

With its first sample analysis, Curiosity scientists were able to answer that question with a definitive yes. Now they are trying to learn what conditions on Mars might best preserve the organic chemistry that would be proof of life. With NASA's next rover, scheduled to fly in 2020, scientists want to not only have a better idea of where to look for life, but also use the rover to cache samples for an eventual return to Earth.

TGO and Schiaparelli are due to launch aboard a Russian Proton rocket at 5:31 a.m. EDT Monday (Daylight Savings Time starts on Sunday) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The trip to Mars will take seven months, with TGO putting itself into orbit and Schiaparelli landing on the surface on Oct. 19. TGO will spend about a year skimming the Martian atmosphere to get itself into position for its science mission, which is scheduled to begin at the end of 2017.

Photograph of the Proton-M rocket with ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli module at the launch pad.

ExoMars is getting ready for its big day! The first phase of the mission, called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), is on its way later this month to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. That's the last stop before it launches to the Red Planet. The good news is TGO will arrive at Mars on time despite

problems discovered a few months ago

with devices aboard a lander demonstrator called Schiaparelli. TGO pushed to a later launch date in March (as opposed to January), 2016, but the journey to Mars will be shorter.

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This mission will be the first of two exciting phases of Europe's ExoMars mission, as this will quickly be followed up by the launch of the ExoMars rover in 2018. Click through this slideshow to see TGO getting prepped for its journey in Europe.

Electrical subsystems were installed on TGO in November 2014. The gold cones you see at the top of the spacecraft are "straylight baffles" to help the star trackers (just below each cone), which are used to keep the spacecraft correctly oriented, point more precisely. The instruments for TGO were then mounted above and below the star trackers. "This will ensure optimum alignment of the instruments with the trackers, regardless of thermally-induced mechanical distortions in the main structure," ESA said in a statement.

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Stretch! TGO's solar arrays were tested in May 2015. As you can tell by the size of the technician, these are large arrays of nearly 8 meters (roughly 26 feet). The arrays will be folded against the spacecraft during launch and will be deployed after it has reached a stable attitude in space. Solar arrays will be TGO's only source of power, but an on-board battery can store some power while the spacecraft orbits into Mars' shadow.

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TGO will also include a landing demonstration module called Schiaparelli, which is more formally known as the ExoMars Entry, descent and landing Demonstrator Module (EDM). You can see Schiaparelli sitting on top of a trolley here, nearby some technicians that are about to connect it with an overhead crane that will place the lander on top of the TGO. Schiaparelli will get a power boost from TGO before separating and flying into Mars' atmosphere by itself.

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Here you can actually see Schiaparelli being installed on top of TGO. While Schiaparelli takes a quick ride to Mars' surface to test out landing technologies for future missions and search for methane, TGO will stay above to communicate with the lander during its brief mission. TGO's long-term goal is both to study Mars' atmosphere, and to act as a communications relay for the ExoMars rover expected to leave Earth in 2018.

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Here is TGO inside of a thermal chamber to simulate how the spacecraft will work in conditions similar to the real space environment. "In particular, they verify how the module behaves as the temperature changes in high vacuum (space-like) conditions, and how the module reaches thermal equilibrium," ESA wrote at the time.

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