Mars Mission Blasts Off to Seek Signs of Life

Two European-made, robotic spacecraft began a seven-month journey to the Red Planet today.

Next stop, Mars!

Two robotic spacecraft began a seven-month journey to the Red Planet today (March 14), blasting off together atop a Russian Proton-M rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:31 a.m. EDT (0931 GMT; 3:31 p.m. local Kazakhstan time).

The spacecraft - the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and a lander called Schiaparelli - constitute the first part of the two-phase ExoMars program, a European-Russian project to hunt for signs of life on the Red Planet. The second phase will launch a deep-drilling rover in 2018, if current schedules hold. [The ExoMars 2016 Mission: Complete Coverage]

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ExoMars represents a significant broadening of the scientific research effort at Mars, which has been dominated by NASA for the past two decades. For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) mounted just one Red Planet mission prior to ExoMars - Mars Express, which launched in 2003 - and Russia has not yet achieved any interplanetary successes (though the same cannot be said of its predecessor nation, the Soviet Union).

Searching for signs of life

If all goes according to plan, TGO and Schiaparelli will separate from each other on Oct. 16, as the duo are approaching Mars. [Gallery: Europe's ExoMars 2016 Mission in Pictures]

The 8,220-lb. (3,730 kilograms) TGO will enter orbit around the Red Planet on Oct. 19, then eventually work its way to a circular orbit with an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers). From this vantage point, the spacecraft will study the Martian surface and atmosphere using four different science instruments during a five-year mission that's expected to begin in December 2017.

TGO's chief task is to hunt for methane and its degradation products in Mars' air. The vast majority of methane in Earth's atmosphere is produced by microbes and other living organisms, so the gas is viewed as a possible sign of Red Planet life, if any exists.

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However, geological processes can also generate methane, so a detection of the gas is not a slam dunk for life. Indeed, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity detected a 10-fold jump in methane levels in late 2013 and early 2014, but mission scientists still aren't sure what caused it.

TGO will do other jobs as well. For example, the photos it takes will help the ExoMars team choose a landing spot for the 2018 rover. And the solar-powered orbiter will serve as a communications link between that rover and Earth.

The orbiter's "instruments will also map the subsurface hydrogen to a depth of a meter [3.3 feet], with improved spatial resolution compared with previous measurements," ESA officials wrote in a description of TGO. "This could reveal deposits of water ice hidden just below the surface, which, along with locations identified as sources of the trace gases, could influence the choice of landing sites of future missions."

Landing on Mars

While TGO sets up shop in orbit, the 1,320-lb. (660 kg) Schiaparelli craft will head toward the Martian surface for a planned Oct. 19 landing. [How ExoMars TGO Will Hunt for Mars Methane (Video)]

If it works, the touchdown will be a historic moment: ESA has never mounted a successful mission to the surface of another planet. (ESA's Beagle 2 lander, which traveled to the Red Planet with Mars Express, apparently touched down softly as planned, but it never sent any data home from the Martian surface. But it's worth mentioning that the agency's Huygens lander - part of the NASA-ESA Cassini-Huygens mission - operated on Saturn's huge moon Titan in early 2005.)

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Schiaparelli carries several different scientific instruments, including one package that will collect a variety of meteorological data at the probe's landing site in Mars' Meridiani Planum region.

But these instruments will likely operate for just a few days, until Schiaparelli's batteries run out. The probe's primary purpose is to prove out the entry, descent and landing technology needed to get the life-hunting ExoMars rover on the ground several years from now.

Europe and Russia team up

ESA leads the ExoMars program and is responsible for most of the spacecraft hardware. NASA was the original ExoMars partner, but the American space agency dropped out in early 2012, citing budget issues. (NASA is currently working on its own life-hunting Mars rover, which is scheduled to launch in 2020.)

Russia came aboard ExoMars to fill NASA's shoes. Russia's Federal Space Agency, known as Roscosmos, is providing Proton rockets for both of the ExoMars launches, as well as several scientific instruments and the 2018 rover's landing platform.

ESA and Roscosmos will both notch huge milestones if ExoMars goes well. Since emerging from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has launched two missions to the Red Planet: Mars 96, in 1996, and Phobos-Grunt, in 2011. Neither one made it out of Earth orbit.

The Soviet Union, of course, had a lengthy history of Mars exploration. But, while the nation did score a few notable successes - such as the Mars 2 orbiter, which sent photos of the Red Planet back to Earth in 1971-1972 - the majority of Soviet Mars missions failed.

The ExoMars program is expected to cost ESA 1.3 billion euros (about $1.45 billion at current exchange rates), ESA officials have said.

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ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on March 14, 2016.

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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