Has life ever existed on Mars? Or anywhere beyond Earth?
Answering that question is one of the most profound scientific inquiries of our time.
Europe and Russia have teamed up for a bold venture named ExoMars that’s set to blast off in search of Martian life in about two and a half years.
Determining if life ever originated on the Red Planet is the primary goal of the audacious two pronged ExoMars missions set to launch in 2016 & 2018 in a partnership between the European and Russian space agencies, ESA and Roscosmos.
In a major milestone announced today (June 17) at the Paris Air Show, ESA signed the implementing contract with Thales Alenia Space, the industrial prime contractor, to start the final construction phase for the 2016 Mars mission.
“The award of this contract provides continuity to the work of the industrial team members of Thales Alenia Space on this complex mission, and will ensure that it remains on track for launch in January 2016,” noted Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.
The ambitious 2016 ExoMars mission comprises of both an orbiter and a lander- namely the methane sniffing Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the piggybacked Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).
ExoMars 2016 will be Europe’s first spacecraft dispatched to the Red Planet since the 2003 blast off of the phenomenally successful Mars Express mission – which just celebrated its 10th anniversary since launch.
Methane (CH4) gas is the simplest organic molecule and very low levels have reportedly been detected in the thin Martian atmosphere. But the data are not certain and its origin is not clear cut.
Methane could be a marker either for active living organisms today or it could originate from non life geologic processes. On Earth more than 90% of the methane originates from biological sources.
The ExoMars 2016 orbiter will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane.
The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European landing technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission slated for 2018.
The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.
ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project until hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians forced NASA to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of detailed work.
Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of planetary launches scheduled for January 2016 and May 2018.
NASA does not have the funds to launch another Mars rover until 2020 at the earliest – and continuing budget cuts threaten even the 2020 launch date.
NASA will still have a small role in the ExoMars project by funding several science instruments.
The ExoMars missions along with NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity Mars rovers will pave the way for Mars Sample Return missions in the 2020’s and eventual Humans voyages to the Red Planet in the 2030’s.
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013
Learn more about Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations
June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM