ESA's ExoMars launches

The mission will look for signs of habitability on the Red Planet, and may answer some questions about how life on our own world began.


Replay of the ExoMars 2016 liftoff at 09:31 GMT, 14 March
Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars 2016 probe has launched, following its successful lift-off from Baikonour, Kazakhstan 09:31 UTC on 14 March 2016.

The probe will attempt to examine the possibility of life on Mars and other planets.

The mission is the latest instalment of ESA’s increasingly ambitious planetary exploration programme. The programme will search for the signs of life, past and present, on Mars. But rather than simply looking at the ground as other missions have done, ExoMars will turn its eyes on the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

Prior orbiters and rovers, such as NASA’s Curiosity rover, have found hints of methane in the atmosphere. One of the key goals of the ExoMars programme is to confirm this.

“With ExoMars, [we are] once again playing a historic role, by helping humanity quench our timeless thirst for exploration and supporting our endless quest to find the origin of life,” says Walter Cugno, ExoMars’s program director.

It will also study the other gases present and try to determine their origins as well as how they change over the Martian year.

The ExoMars programme consists of two missions. The 2016 portion has both an orbiter, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), and Schiaparelli lander being launched this week. The second will deliver a rover to the surface in 2018.

The TGO will enter orbit in seven months time, but three days before its arrival it will release the Schiaparelli lander. As the lander makes its way to the surface, it will take measurements of the entry, descent and landing as a test of the technology and procedures needed for the 2018 mission. Schiaparelli will function for another eight days while on the surface before its batteries fail.

The TGO will remain in orbit to perform its mission. When the 2018 mission arrives it will also double as a relay station between Earth and the surface as the rover uses a suit of instruments to examine the geochemistry of the planet.


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