ExoMars: New Mars probe adds to fleet searching for life
By Dave Gilbert, for CNN
Updated 1024 GMT (1824 HKT) October 12, 2016
Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds.
Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesOne of the aims of the mission is to test a landing craft called Schiaparelli, pictured on Mars in this artist's impression.Hide Caption 1 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesThe ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter arrives will look for gases that could signal biological activity. Pictured, a representation of the orbiter beginning its entry into Mars orbit.Hide Caption 2 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesA visualization of the fairing falling away to reveal the Trace Gas Orbiter, with Schiaparelli.Hide Caption 3 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesIt's a joint project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Roscosmos. Pictured, the orbiter and Schiaparelli undergoing testing in Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.Hide Caption 4 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesThe ExoMars spacecraft ready for encapsulation at the Baikonur cosmodrome.Hide Caption 5 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesA worker from Thales Alenia Space, the company that built the ExoMars spacecraft, pictured underneath Schiaparelli in Cannes, France. Hide Caption 6 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesSchiaparelli will be measuring wind speed, temperature, humidity and pressure on Mars.Hide Caption 7 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesAnother ExoMars mission will launch a rover in 2020. Here the prototype is demonstrated in Turin, Italy in September 2010.Hide Caption 8 of 9 Photos: The ExoMars Mission — in picturesAn artist's rendition of the The ExoMars 2020 Rover, which will drill into the Martian surface to analyze samples. Hide Caption 9 of 9
(CNN)A new phase in the continuing search for life on Mars begins this month — adding to a fleet of spacecraft probing the Red Planet.
And it comes as US President Barack Obama, writing for CNN, pledged to send humans to Mars by the 2030s "with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time."Barack Obama: America will take the giant leap to Mars"I'm excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space." The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter arrives next week to start its mission looking for more evidence about methane production and other atmospheric gases that could signal biological activity.The venture is a joint project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian state corporation Roscosmos.Read MoreIn 2014, NASA's Curiosity rover detected a large spike in methane in the atmosphere, prompting debate about what was causing it.
The ESA probe aims to find out more."Organisms on Earth release methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, such as the oxidation of certain minerals, also release methane," ESA says.'How we can build another Earth'Adam Stevens, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh and the UK Centre for Astrobiology, has worked on the science associated with the ExoMars mission and in preparation for it.He explained that although methane is present on other planets, on Earth it is a signature of life."What we find on Earth is that … some 90% of Earth's methane is biological, whether that's active now or from past biology that's decomposing," he said. "That means if we look at another planet like Mars … maybe that's a sign of biology."Stevens stressed that methane can be produced by other means, and not just life, but told CNN that the ExoMars mission will help "rule out some possibilities … to tease out what is going on."For example, he said, if methane was found at the poles where it's extremely cold then the methane is not produced by something that's melting.
ESA to test lander
Hate your job? NASA wants you to work on MarsESA says the probe will also try to detect deposits of water ice below the surface, and help guide the selection of a suitable landing site for future missions.One of the aims is to test a landing craft called Schiaparelli. The lander will separate from the orbiter and then using a parachute and thruster will descend to the surface.ESA says the impact will be cushioned by a structure similar to a crumple zone in a car.The landing site has been chosen because it contains a layer of iron oxide that on Earth almost always forms in an environment containing liquid water, ESA says.Schiaparelli has been designed to operate for a few days and will measure wind speed, temperature, humidity and pressure.This mission is part of a longer-term ESA project to explore the Red Planet. The next ExoMars launch is planned for 2020 and will include a rover that can drill into the Martian surface to analyze samples. Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers From its perch high on a ridge, Opportunity recorded this image of a Martian dust devil twisting through the valley below. Just as on Earth, a dust devil is created by a rising, rotating column of hot air. When the column whirls fast enough, it picks up tiny grains of dust from the ground, making the vortex visible.Hide Caption 1 of 8 Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers Opportunity photographed its tracks in the soft sand between the Endurance and Victoria craters, on the Meridiani Plains.Hide Caption 2 of 8 Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers While traversing on and around the ancient volcanic feature called Home Plate, Spirit took many images of finely layered and more frothy looking volcanic rocks. Hide Caption 3 of 8 Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers Tiny spherules pepper a sandy surface in this 3-centimeter (1.2-inch) square view of the Martian surface. Opportunity took this image while the target was shadowed by the rover's instrument arm.Hide Caption 4 of 8 Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers A handout photo from NASA shows the Opportunity rover's route since landing on Mars in 2004. Hide Caption 5 of 8 Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers This map shows the southward path driven by Opportunity from late December 2014 until it passed marathon distance on March 24, 2015, during the 3,968th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars.Hide Caption 6 of 8 Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers The Mars Opportunity rover (computer visualization).Hide Caption 7 of 8 Photos: Mars Opportunity and Spirit rovers The Mars Spirit rover. Both rovers feature a piece of metal with the American flag on the side. They are made of aluminum recovered from the site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Hide Caption 8 of 8The Europeans will be hoping for more success than on their previous mission to the surface of Mars. A British-built probe called Beagle 2, part of ESA's Mars Express program, was lost on Christmas Day in 2003 after contact failed during the descent.But last year, images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed that the craft had successfully landed but failed to properly deploy its solar panels.
Mass Mars exploration
Schiaparelli and its orbiting sister craft make up a growing swarm of satellites and surface robots that are continuing to hunt for signs of life on our neighboring planet. Opportunity rover celebrates marathon milestoneTwo NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, arrived shortly after Beagle 2. Spirit got stuck in the Martian soil in 2009 and its mission was ended in 2011 but Opportunity has traveled more than a marathon distance of 26 miles and is still operational.NASA's Curiosity rover arrived in 2012 and is still returning stunning images of cliff faces on Mars.An Indian Mars probe called MOM has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2014 and ESA's Mars Express orbiter has been returning data since its arrival in 2003.Nasa's MAVEN orbiter is also investigating the Martian atmosphere after it began its mission in orbit in 2014.
New missions planned
As well as ESA's future ExoMars missions, NASA is planning another rover expedition. Landing in February 2021, it too will be scouring the surface for signs of life.New Mars 2020 rover will be able to 'hear' Red PlanetNASA says the rover will have a nuclear power source that can last at least 10 years and will include a test for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere — something that might be crucial for future human exploration. Its cameras will be able to generate 3-D maps, while instruments will try to detect and analyze organic molecules in the rocks and dust.The rover will also be equipped with ground-penetrating radar to look for unusual features such as ice or brine.Private companies are keen to join the trips to the Red Planet. SpaceX has tested a new rocket it plans to use for a future mission and Mars One says it will start training astronauts next year, aiming for a launch in 2026.Read more