On March 14th, 2016 we learned about

Orbiter and lander’s launch kick off new ExoMars missions

While most Americans were sleeping this morning, a rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. While the launch and subsequent burns to position the spacecraft were successful, mission commanders had to wait nearly 12 hours before confirming that the ExoMars spacecraft was operational as it radioed home a status report. Now, with all systems go, the spacecraft begins its seven-month journey to Mars. Once there, two more components will separate, with the Schiaparelli lander heading for the planet’s surface and the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) slipping into orbit.

Trial touch down

As exciting as a successful launch is, the real meat of the mission(s) will start in October. The Schiaparelli lander is slated to touch down on Mars on October 19. The 1,320-pound rover will measure a number of items about the Martian terrain and weather, but only until its batteries run out. While this may seem odd to fans of the Curiosity, which has been operational since 2011, but it’s by design. The Schiaparelli lander is actually acting a bit like a prototype on this mission, testing equipment for the next phase of the ExoMars mission, which will be sending a more robust lander to Mars in 2018.

Looking for (stinky) signs of life

The TGO, on the other hand, should be soaring across Martian skies for at least five years. It will take some time to get positioned correctly, but by December 2017 it should be sending back data on Martian farts, er, methane. Methane is of particular interest, since it’s primarily created by living things on Earth, from cows to microbes. In 2013, spikes in methane were noted on Mars by Curiosity, and the TGO will hopefully help us determine if such emissions were related to some form of organic matter, or some other geologic process. The satellite will also look for potential landing sites for the second-phase rover, as well as hunt for signs of water ice hidden under the dirt.

While Mars already has a number of robots examining its surface, this two-for-one package is the first to be managed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. The ESA has some experience with satellite-lander packages of course, having already sent the Rosetta/Philae team to Comet 67P. While NASA was originally slated to help with this mission, budget concerns forced the Americans to bow out, at which point Roscosmos was able to fill that gap. The mission is then being heralded as a first those agencies, both in their collaboration and ongoing explorations of Mars.

Source: Liftoff! European Mission to Mars Launches to Seek Signs of Life by Mike Wall, Scientific American

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