ExoMars spacecraft sets off in search of alien life

Joint mission by European and Russian space agencies to scour red planet for methane released by alien organisms

The search for life on Mars has entered a new era with the launch of a spacecraft built to sniff out waste gases released by alien organisms.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) blasted into an overcast sky on a Proton rocket from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on Monday.

A joint mission by the European and Russian space agencies, the probe will circle the red planet and measure minute levels of atmospheric gases, among which may be the natural waste products of microbial Martians.

Mission scientists hope in particular to get to the bottom of the Martian methane mystery. The gas is produced in abundance by life on Earth, and its presence on Mars could signify alien bugs on, or under, the surface. But the gas is also released by chemical reactions in rocks, so on Mars at least, scientists cannot yet be sure of its origins.

“Maybe, maybe we can find out if there’s life extant on the red planet,” said Mark McCaughrean, senior science adviser at the European Space Agency (ESA), moments before the launch.

Scientists have detected whiffs of methane on Mars before. In 2004, ESA’s Mars Express orbiter measured levels of methane in the atmosphere at about 10 parts in a billion, suggesting there is at least some being produced on the planet. Ten years later, Nasa’s Curiosity rover recorded spikes in methane levels on the Martian surface, pointing to localised sources of the gas.

ExoMars mission

The Russian rocket carrying the TGO burned 400 tonnes of fuel and reached a speed of 6,000km per hour in the first two minutes of its journey into space. Fifteen minutes into the flight, Micha Schmidt, a spacecraft operations manager at ESA, said the launch and initial burns that put the Proton rocket on course for Mars were “reading like a picture book performance”.

Sensors on board the TGO will sniff out traces of gases in the Martian atmosphere that should help researchers work out the source of methane on the planet. Specifically, if methane is detected alongside other complex hydrocarbons, such as propane or ethane, the source is more likely to be life than lumps of rock. But if the probe detects sulphur dioxide instead of large organic compounds, the odds will favour a geological origin for the methane.

The TGO will take seven months to travel the 308m miles to Mars. Once there, the main spacecraft will release a small lander, Schiaparelli, which will test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for future landings on the planet. It will send back data for several days after touching down.

Hopes for finding life on Mars, either past or present, received a boost last September when Nasa researchers discovered flowing water on the planet in the form of damp patches that appear on crater walls in the spring and summer months and dry up later in the year. The wet regions are likely to be off limits to rovers because of the risk of contaminating the soil with bugs carried up from Earth, but the TGO will examine them in more detail with its high-resolution camera.

The TGO is the first part of the ExoMars mission and will be followed by a rover capable of drilling up to two metres beneath the surface in search of microbial life. The rover will collect samples of Martian soil from different depths, grind them up, and analyse them for telltale organic compounds.

The six-wheeled rover is expected to trundle over several kilometres of Mars during its mission. The rover is scheduled for launch in 2018, though ESA has warned the mission may be delayed by funding problems.

Contributor

Ian Sample Science editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Spacewatch: landing site for ExoMars mission chosen
European-Russian mission’s rover will land on Mars in 2021 at Oxia Planum, north of equator

Stuart Clark

15, Nov, 2018 @9:30 PM

Article image
Mars mission in a Moscow hangar is no joke, say astronauts

The 520-day simulated journey will provide invaluable data for a real trip, European Space Agency announces

Luke Harding in Moscow

03, Jun, 2010 @5:45 PM

Article image
ExoMars: 'giant nose' to sniff out life on Mars prepares for launch
Spacecraft’s Trace Gas Orbiter will seek out methane – usually produced by living organisms – in planet’s atmosphere

Robin McKie

13, Mar, 2016 @12:36 PM

Article image
Mars 500: Countdown starts for gruelling mission in Moscow car park
Tomorrow six men will be sealed inside a mock-up spaceship in Moscow where they will spend the next 520 days testing how well humans cope with the stress of a return journey to Mars

Ian Sample, science correspondent

02, Jun, 2010 @2:43 PM

Article image
European Space Agency suspends €1bn Mars mission with Russia
The ESA has commissioned a study of how to get ExoMars off the ground without Roscosmos involvement

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

17, Mar, 2022 @7:05 PM

Article image
Mission to Mars – in Moscow sandpit

Six 'astronauts' test human endurance in outer space and explore imitation planet surface in spacesuits

Ian Sample, science correspondent

11, Feb, 2011 @7:46 PM

Article image
Space crew returns after 'Mars' mission to nowhere

Six-strong ESA team end ordeal of boredom and cultural barriers in 18-month simulated Mars mission at Moscow research centre

Ian Sample and Miriam Elder

02, Nov, 2011 @8:26 PM

Article image
ExoMars mission set to land Schiaparelli probe on surface of red planet
If all goes to plan lander should touch down at 3.48pm UK time on Wednesday afternoon, after a journey of half a billion kilometres

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

18, Oct, 2016 @5:10 PM

Article image
How ExoMars Schiaparelli lander may have met its fate on Mars
European Space Agency not immediately certain that probe crashed but early data analysis indicates destructive impact on red planet

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

20, Oct, 2016 @2:41 PM

Article image
Mars crew emerge from 18-month mission that never left the car park

The Russian experiment that simulated a trip to Mars ends with the six volunteers making an undramatic return to Earth

Miriam Elder in Moscow

04, Nov, 2011 @7:33 PM