A renewed search for life on Mars will begin again on Monday when the European Space Agency, along with a bit of help from Russia’s Roscosmos, launches its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from Kazakhstan. The Orbiter is scheduled for a seven-month voyage to the Red Planet before embarking on its mission to search for traces of methane and drop a lander on the surface of Mars.
Reuters reported on March 11 that European Space Agency (ESA) scientists hope to definitively assess whether or not life on Mars is extant through the ExoMars Program‘s Trace Gas Orbiter. This will be done via an atmospheric probe that will be used for detecting methane, a by-product gas that more often than not is indicative of living organisms. Methane can also be a signifier for past life on Mars, where the gas has become trapped under the surface only to escape through erosion and other geological/volcanic methods. (Of course, methane can also be produced geologically, thereby placing a distinct limitation on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter’s ability to determine the existence of present of past life on Mars.
Still, it is a move in a positive direction in terms of space exploration and the search for alien life. Since NASA has continued to back away from attempting to ascertain whether or not life currently exists on Mars, the ESA’s joint space venture with Russia just might answer the most interesting question humans have about Mars.
“Proving that life exists or has existed on Mars would show that Earth is not unique in terms of having life on it,” Rolf de Groot, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Robotic Exploration Coordination Office, told Reuters. “That would make it much more likely that there are other places in the universe that also have life.”
Countless studies and their proponents continue to promote the mathematical near-certainty that Earth is not the only life-bearing planet in the universe. And yet, to date, there exists no uncontested physical evidence that life can be found other than on our own water-laden rocky world.
But Mars has always been a draw for the inquisitive and the explorer, prompting astronomers and philosophers for centuries to posit theories about the existence of life on our neighboring planet. The Guardian noted that British astronomer William Herschel studied the Red Planet in the 18th Century and theorized that his observations of illuminated polar caps and dark seas led him to conclude that life on Mars would likely be similar to that on Earth.
But just a century later, American astronomer Percival Lowell, having the advantage of a stronger telescope, found that Herschel’s “seas” were connected by thick, dark lines. This would prompt the theorization that Mars was a dying, drying planet and that the inhabitants thereon had built canals to attempt to save their world.
Of course, we know today, due to various orbiting missions by several space agencies and the numerous landings and rover observations made by NASA, that there are no great seas or canals on Mars. In fact, Mars is a bit of a barren planet with just a trace of atmosphere. But there is ice and evidence that at one time, there was water in some abundance, both in the form of seas and flowing sources like streams. This has led scientists to remain hopeful that life may still exist on Mars, perhaps at a subterranean level. If nothing else, further study might indicate that, though extinct at present, there once was life on Mars.
The ExoMars mission stems from the detection of trace amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2014. As Scientific American reported, the rover detected periodic trace amounts of methane, NASA scientists said, but there were four instances where the methane in the Martian air spiked up to ten percent more than the regular readings.
The ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, in addition to its atmospheric probe, is also equipped with a lander to deploy to study the Martian surface in advance for a rover scheduled to begin its part of the ExoMars mission in 2018. The rover will have the capability of roaming the surface and drilling and analyzing samples, perhaps bolstering whatever the Orbiter discovers in the meantime.
Roscosmos has provided the launcher and two of the four scientific instruments on the Trace Gas Orbiter. The spacecraft will ride into space on a Russian Proton rocket, lifting off from Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan.
The search for extraterrestrial life — as it pertains to Mars — has once again been engaged. And although the ExoMars Orbiter might not find definitive proof of life on Mars, it is designed to garner information that can be used to determine how the methane in Mars’ atmosphere is produced. Its data readings can point scientists in the direction of what is most likely — gas produced by life on Mars (living or once-living organisms) or gas produced via geological factors (such as oxidation of iron).
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