Mission to Find Life on Mars Blasts Off

The European Space Agency kicks off its ExoMars project to look for methane and other signs of life in the Martian atmosphere

Exomars Trace Gas Orbiter
An artist's rendering of the ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter ESA/ATG medialab

Early this morning, a Russian Proton-M rocket launched from its pad in Kazakhstan, carrying a payload that might help determine once and for all whether there is life on Mars (and whether that’s really where David Bowie ended up).

It will take 7 months for the first stage of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Mission to reach the red planet where a craft called the Trace Gas Orbiter will begin circling while a lander, dubbed Shiaparelli after a 19th century astronomer who made detailed observations of the planet's surface, will head for the dusty surface.

According to the ESA, the project has two phases. The orbiter, which will circle the planet at an altitude of roughly 250 miles during a five-year-mission, will sample the Martian atmosphere to detect nitrogen, water vapor and gasses that are associated with Earth-bound life, like methane. The orbiter's instruments will also map the subsurface hydrogen in the upper few feet of the planet in search of potential water-ice—information that could aid in choosing landing sites for future missions. The second leg of the ExoMars program is a rover scheduled to launch in 2018 and will also use the satellite to relay data back to Earth.

The Schiaparelli lander, on the other hand, is only expected to last two to four days on the red planet's surface. It’s being used to test a new thermal protection material, a new parachute system, a liquid braking system and an altimeter, all of which may be used in future missions.

So why methane?

In the atmosphere, methane breaks down into the trace molecules, which means that any methane forming was from recent microbial or geologic processes, writes  Kenneth Chang at The New York Times. Signs of methane could indicate that life or at least the prime ingredients for life exist somewhere on the planet.

The ESA’s 2003 Mars Express mission possibly detected methane and in 2014 NASA’s Curiosity rover recorded a burst of the gas. But the accuracy of those probes left lingering doubt. The latest mission will tackle this question with three orders of magnitude greater accuracy compared to past measurements.

“Determining whether life ever existed, or is still active on Mars today, is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time,” Jorge Vago, one of the ESA's project scientists says in an interview. “The ExoMars program seeks to address this important scientific goal and to demonstrate in-situ technologies, enabling both the mission’s science goals and the preparation of European participation in future endeavors.”

According to the Russian news agency TASS, however, it may take a bit longer for part two of ExoMars to get off the ground. The ESA and Russia are considering pushing the rover launch from 2018 to 2020. Russia stepped into the project when NASA, originally slated to put ExoMars into space, backed out due to budget cuts in 2012.