The first part of a joint European-Russian mission to Mars successfully launched today at 5.31 a.m. EST (9.31 a.m. GMT), and will arrive at Mars on October 19. The hugely exciting mission, called ExoMars, will ultimately be one of the most advanced searches for life on the Red Planet yet.
The launch took place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton rocket. On board are two components of the ExoMars mission – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the ambitious Schiaparelli lander. The second part of the mission, which will include a rover to hunt for signs of life on Mars, is scheduled to launch in 2018.
“We are both proud and excited to have met the challenge of delivering ExoMars on time for its 'rendez-vous' with the Red Planet,” said Walter Cugno, ExoMars program director, in a statement.
There had been a two-week launch window for the launch, but as it passed without a hitch, the spacecraft is now expected to arrive as scheduled in October after a journey of just seven months, owing to the close proximity of Earth and Mars.
“Establishing if life ever existed on Mars is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time,” said ESA in a mission overview. “To address this important goal, the European Space Agency (ESA) has established the ExoMars programme to investigate the Martian environment and to demonstrate new technologies paving the way for a future Mars sample return mission in the 2020s.”
ExoMars is seen here being rolled out ahead of the launch on Monday. ESA / B. Bethge
This is the first European mission to Mars since Mars Express, back in 2003. That mission was also composed of an orbiter and lander, with the successful Mars Express satellite remaining in operation today. But the infamous British-built Beagle 2 lander was sadly never heard from on the surface, despite images last year suggesting it had landed successfully.
ESA had originally planned to carry out this mission with NASA, but when the U.S. agency pulled out in 2012, they turned to Russia instead. As well as supplying the rocket for this launch, Russia has also designed the Schiaparelli lander.
The TGO, as its name suggests, will be used to study the Martian atmosphere for gases, particularly those of “biological importance.” Instruments on the orbiter will aim to locate the source of these gases. And the orbiter will also be used as a relay satellite for the upcoming rover in 2018.
Artist's impression of the rover on Mars. ESA
About three days before it reaches Mars, the TGO will release the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator. This is very much just a test spacecraft, designed to check the technologies that will be used to land the rover on the surface two years later. Schiaparelli will slow itself down after atmospheric entry with a parachute system, coming to what will hopefully be a soft landing using nine small thrusters. Its batteries are expected to last just a few days on the surface, during which time a small science package will operate.
The mission as a whole, though, is hugely exciting. Not since the days of the Viking probes has such a direct and extensive search for life on Mars been performed. The rover, when it arrives in 2018, will use a drill to explore up to two meters (6.6 feet) below the surface. Until then, this precursor mission will help lay the groundwork, and bring us closer to finding out if there is life on Mars.
"This morning is not only the next step in hunting signs of martian life from orbit, but also laying vital groundwork for this next generation life-hunting rover," Dr Lewis Dartnell from the University of Kent, who works on the ExoMars mission, told IFLScience.