Headlines in the new space race have been dominated lately by private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin but the mission to Mars is gaining some renewed vigor from a huge intergovernmental organization: The European Space Agency is preparing for a two-stage mission to determine if the Red Planet ever supported life, and is doing so by mining it for traces of methane and other atmospheric gases.
Called ExoMars 2016, the mission will see the Schiaparelli — the “entry, descent, and landing demonstrator” — and the Trace Gas Orbiter launch on a proton rocket to Mars in March from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Russia, on schedule to enter the planet’s atmosphere in October.
The mission will explore whether the methane on Mars — discovered in 2004 during the ESA’s Mars Express mission — is or was vital to the planet’s life-supporting capabilities. On Earth, methane is typically generated by organisms, “even bacteria,” the video’s narrator notes, “but there are other possible sources, such as hydrothermal reactions between water” and minerals in the mantle that allow for the creation of gases.
“The interesting thing is that whether it’s the bacteria or the hydrothermal reactions in the mantle — in either case you need liquid water — and both cases point to a planet that is ‘more alive’ than people thought,” says Jorge Vago an ESA scientist working on the ExoMars mission.
The Schiaparelli will supply communications from the surface of Mars to a Trace Gas Orbiter developed by the ESA. The Orbiter is designed to perform the majority of scientific measurements as it gathers traces of gas from the Martian atmosphere.
The ESA explains:
“The Orbiter will perform detailed, remote observations of the Martian atmosphere, searching for evidence of gases of possible biological importance, such as methane and its degradation products. The instruments onboard the Orbiter will carry out a variety of measurements to investigate the location and nature of sources that produce these gases.”
Both Schiaparelli and the Trace Gas Orbiter are primed to relay data for the second stage of the ExoMars mission, when in 2018, the ExoMars Rover — similar to the one employed by NASA — will drill two meters below the Martian surface and collect samples.
An ESA animation makes an educated guess as to what that drilling will look like in 2018: