Planets

Europe's Mars Life-Detection Mission Postponed

The ExoMars life-scouting rover mission to Mars will stay on the ground an extra two years.

Europe and Russia are delaying launch of their ExoMars life-scouting rover mission to Mars from 2018 to 2020, the next time Earth and Mars are best aligned for interplanetary flight.

"Russian and European experts made their best efforts to meet the 2018 launch schedule for the mission," the European Space Agency said in a statement Monday.

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But a panel investigating options for overcoming delays, concluded that rescheduling for July 2020 "would be the best solution."

Program managers agreed and have asked project teams to coordinate with industry contractors and develop new schedules.

"Additional measures will also be taken to maintain close control over the activities on both sides up to launch," the statement said.

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The delay means that the ExoMars mission, which will search for present-day or past life on Mars, will be launching during the same period as NASA's Mars2020, a follow-on mission to the ongoing Curiosity rover. In addition to assessing Mars' habitability, the NASA mission will gather samples for an eventual return to Mars.

In December, problems with a French-built science instrument for InSight, another NASA Mars mission, forced the probe to miss its March 2016 launch opportunity. That flight has now been retargeted for 2018.

Engineers demonstrate an ExoMars Rover prototype a 2010 ExoMars Industry Day 010 in Turin, Italy.

The realism of "The Martian" is getting the attention of NASA -- and not only because of what fictional NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) does on the surface. The agency has released several photographs showing real-life locations related to Watney's journey as he tries to get home to Earth. Also, the European Space Agency put out a map showing where Watney moved around on the surface (which we have put last in case you are worried about any spoilers.) Read on to see some of the places Watney had to think about when surviving on Mars.

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Watney's journey begins in Acidalia Planitia, the landing site for his mission (Ares 3). Inside the crater you can see deposits that were blown there by the wind. Think about it -- as Watney and his crew moved around the crater, every place they went to, they were the first to put bootprints in that sand. The University of Arizona's HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter helped gather data for this picture. "We can’t see the Ares 3 habitat because it arrives sometime in the future, so this is the 'before' image,"

joked the HiRISE website

earlier this year.

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While we think of Mars as a place devoid of humans, we've sent several landing missions over the years. It turns out that Ares 3 is not so far away from the landing site of

NASA Pathfinder

and its rover, Sojourner -- the first rover to explore Mars in 1997. This image shows portions of the craft after it was deployed, such as the airbags and possibly parts of the heat shield. Since Pathfinder, NASA has sent three more rovers to the surface:

Opportunity (2004), Spirit (2004)

and

Curiosity

(2012). Opportunity and Curiosity are still working on the surface. The European Space Agency plans to send its first rover to Mars as part of the

2018 ExoMars mission

.

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As the name "Ares 3" implies, the Ares program is just one of a series of missions to Mars. Ares 4 is the next one, targeting a famous crater on the Martian surface: Schiaparelli Crater. Nearly 300 miles (500 kilometers) across, it's hard to get the entire thing into one high-resolution image, so this is just a portion of it taken with HiRISE. According to NASA, the agency has

avoided dusty regions

like this for two reasons: the dust gets very warm during the day and cold at night (hard on equipment) and it's hard to know if there's anything interesting geologically in the bedrock underneath.

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Here's a challenge about moving around on Mars: it's really hard to judge distance, because there are no familiar human markings to help us find our way around. Astronauts faced this challenge on the moon, and as Watney uses his rover on the surface, he has to be similarly careful not to go in the wrong direction or overstretch his rover's battery. Mawrth Crater is one of the landmarks Watney plots. "The crater rim is not very distinct, and from the Martian surface it would be quite difficult to tell that you are even on the rim of a crater,"

NASA says

.

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The Opportunity rover (which landed in 2004) is somewhat close to where Watney is moving around. It's possible that Watney draws inspiration from the plucky machine, which is still working well on Mars long past its original 90-Martian-day expiry date. Among Opportunity's major milestones: driving

more than a marathon's worth of distance on Mars,

finding extensive evidence of water around its landing site and beyond, and

exploring the rim of a large crater

called Endeavour.

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While we initially could imagine craters as simple excavations of the surface, the Martian weather makes them far more complex than that. This is a

close-up view of Becquerel Crater

, somewhat near where Watney was moving on the surface. These thick deposits would be made either by water (in the ancient past, when Mars was wetter) or wind, based on what we know of similar processes on Earth. You don't see a lot of craters here because the deposits are so thin that the wind can easily erase any craters in the surface.

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Here you can see Watney's journey across the surface of Mars, as mapped by the European Space Agency (and German Space Agency, DLR) based on imagery from the Mars Express spacecraft. The colors represent different heights of features on the Martian surface, with blue being lowest and red being highest. You can see how Watney had to carefully make his way between craters to reach his destination, the Ares 4 landing site.

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