ESA research mission to Mars starts

Spacecraft "ExoMars" is looking for traces of life

Journey to the Red Planet: The ExoMars' Trace Gas Orbiter seeks vital signs in the Martian atmosphere © ESA / ATG medialab
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The countdown is on: This morning, the ESA space probe "ExoMars" will start its journey to the Red Planet. The joint mission of Europe and Russia is to search for life in the Martian atmosphere, but above all to pave the way for another mission in two years' time. Then the planet researchers send, among other things, a rover to Mars. He will also take a closer look at the planet's surface.

Is there life on Mars? Humanity has been dealing with this question for a long time. After all, despite its cold, desert-like climate, the Red Planet is the most earthly in our solar system. And: He was not always as hostile to life as he is today. In the first billion years after its formation, the climate there was much warmer and wetter. Relics of primeval rivers and lakes on Mars bear witness to the fact that water once existed in liquid form - a prerequisite for life as we know it.

Targeted search for life for the first time again

Indeed, a few months ago, scientists even discovered strong evidence that there could still be liquid salt water on Mars today. Under the Martian surface, there are still glaciers of water ice.

Already in the 1970s, the Viking land emissions searched for traces of life on Mars - unsuccessful. Since then, Landesonden concentrated on searching for traces of water and formerly more life-friendly conditions. Now, for the first time, a new mission is to specifically search for clues to life on the Red Planet: The space probe "ExoMars" will start its voyage to Mars today at 10.30 am German time from the Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan.

Searching for traces in the atmosphere

Together, the orbiter and the landing module Schiaparelli will reach Mars in October 2016 Copyright: ESA / ATG medialab

The joint mission of the European Space Agency ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos is set to take off with a proton rocket. The on-board probe consists of two parts: a Mars orbiter orbiting the Red Planet in a fixed orbit and looking for gases such as methane in the atmosphere that might indicate the existence of simple life forms. display

The second part of the probe is the landing module Schiaparelli. It will demonstrate technologies for a soft landing on Mars neither Europe nor Russia has succeeded in doing so. However, NASA's "Curiosity" Mars rover demonstrated as early as 2012 that this was possible using state-of-the-art technologies. From entering the Martian atmosphere to landing safely, the probe then went through a complex chain of several stages, six different configurations of the rover and its auxiliary components, and the firing of 76 explosive charges.

Landing in October

If everything goes smoothly, "ExoMars" can start work in October of this year. Then the space probe should reach the red planet. After the landing module has been separated from the orbiter, it will land on the Mars surface on October 19, 2016, according to the plan.

Second Mission: In 2018, an Eruopian Mars rover will investigate the surface of the Red Planet ESA

The successful launch of the mission is extremely important to the planetary scientists. It will pave the way for a second mission, scheduled for 2018. In the process, a European Mars rover and a Russian landing platform will be dropped on the planet and hopefully provide further new insights.

The rover is to explore the surface of Mars and thereby cover several kilometers. The special feature: It is equipped with a powerful drilling system and for the first time will be able to take samples from depths of up to two meters and then analyze them, as the ESA reports. In fossil rock remnants or organic matter, he may discover evidence of past life on the planet.

(ESA, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, 14.03.2016 - DAL)