On 14 March the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Proton rocket. Its mission: to understand the planet’s atmosphere and search for signs of biological and geological activity.
Assuming all goes to plan, the craft will arrive at the Red Planet on 19 October. It carries a small lander named Schiaparelli that will touch down on the surface, giving the European Space Agency and Roscosmos much-needed landing practice for a future ExoMars rover, due to launch in 2018.
Neither agency has a great track record when it comes to Mars. The only ESA mission, Mars Express, successfully put a spacecraft in orbit in 2003. But Beagle 2, the British-built lander it was carrying, failed to phone home, though it was recently rediscovered on the surface. Russia has fared even worse, losing its 2011 Phobos-Grunt mission to a botched launch. The Soviet Union attempted more than a dozen Mars missions, but none was a complete success.
Connecting gases in the air to their origin on the surface is key to figuring out whether Mars is as dead as it seems, and TGO’s top priority is methane. The gas breaks down in sunlight after a few hundred years, meaning any found on Mars must have been produced recently, either by active volcanoes or gas-belching microbes. “If there is methane, it needs to be supplied continuously from somewhere,” says ExoMars 2016 project scientist Håkan Svedhem.
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