The ExoMars mission successfully blasted off Monday, and now is on its way to Mars. Launched with the intention of finding life, or signs of it, on the Red Planet, the project is being considered as the launchpad for developing ever closer ties between Russia and Europe in space exploration.
Two robotic spacecraft strapped inside a Russian-made Proton rocket have begun their journey to Mars. Launched from the Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the rocket is part of a joint scientific effort between Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA), known as ExoMars 2016-2018, reported GeekWire. The spacecraft will now sit patiently for seven long months as the rocket covers the distance between Earth and its closest planetary cousin.
#ExoMars brief: Even after Crimea conflict we launched Rus EU & US astronauts, building a global alliance in space, building bridges- Wörner— Daniel Hawkins (@DanhawkinsDh) March 13, 2016
The picture-perfect lift off is the first phase of the ExoMars mission, a partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos. The primary goal of the ExoMars mission, and in extension, the collaboration, is to find whether Mars was ever capable of sustaining life. Once landed, the probes will help in examining the surface and topography of the Red Planet in the hopes of determining if Mars is, or has ever been, home to alien life, reported the Verge.
Russia’s Proton rocket, carrying the spacecraft, launched into an overcast sky at the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe at 9:31 a.m. GMT, according to plan, the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA) said, reported MSN.
ExoMars 2016 is the first part of a two-phase exploration, which would hopefully settle the debate about the Red Planet’s ability and history of harboring any life forms. Moreover, the ExoMars mission involves a two-pronged approach. Instead of just sending probes to crawl on the surface, the mission involves two space probes, one of which will never land on the Martian surface, but is equally important to the probe that will be deployed in the surface of the planet. Speaking about the mission, ExoMars scientists said the following.
“If life ever arose on the Red Planet. it probably did when Mars was warmer and wetter, sometime within the first billion years following planetary formation. Conditions then were similar to those when microbes gained a foothold on the young Earth. This marks Mars as a primary target for the search for signs of life in our Solar System.”
The rocket that blasted off Monday is carrying an orbiter and mini lander. The duo is expected to reach Mars by October, reported RT. Once they arrive at the Red Planet, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will be deployed in the Martian orbit, while the Mars lander, dubbed Schiaparelli, will be shot off into the Martian atmosphere for landing on the surface.
The TGO is expected to begin travelling about 400 kilometers above Mars, “sniffing” for traces of gases, most notable among them being methane. While many gases are associated with biological activity, methane has been traditionally considered as one of the strongest potential indicators of biological life on the planetary surface below. Methane is largely produced, in significant quantities, by living organisms. Incidentally, earlier missions have detected plumes of the promising gases in the northern hemisphere, but the origin still eludes scientists. Detecting methane could indicate some ancient alien life forms lived on Mars, or some very resistant methane-producing organisms still survive.
Meanwhile, the Schiaparelli lander will land on the Martian surface and explore the planet. The rover will also conduct some light drilling expeditions, looking for signs of current or ancient life. Interestingly, while the lander is expected to conduct exploratory missions, it landing on the Martian surface, too, will be considered a huge success. A landing will confirm that ESA and Roscosmos have the right technologies to gently touch down an object on Mars. If the lander touches down softly and begins its mission, the ExoMars mission is bound to succeed and will pave the way for future missions, added the ExoMars mission team.
[Photo by Stephane Corvaja/ESA/Getty Images]