ExoMars is one of the European Space Agency (ESA)’s most ambitious missions. The first part of the program consisting of two robotic spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli – lifted off aboard a Russian Proton-M rocket on Monday to find evidence of life on Mars. It blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:31 pm local time (5:31 am ET). ExoMars is a two-phase mission, with the second phase to be launched in 2018.
Russia a partner in ExoMars mission
If everything goes as planned, TGO and Schiaparelli will separate from each other on October 16, just three days before reaching the red planet. On October 19, the TGO will enter the orbit around Mars traveling at 13,000 miles per hour. The lander Schiaparelli will begin its descent through the Martian atmosphere and eventually land on the Meridiani Planum plain. Next year, TGO will use friction with the Martian atmosphere to “aerobrake” and descend to an altitude of just 250 miles.
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NASA was initially part of the program, but the US space agency pulled out in 2012 due to budget issues. Later, Russian space agency Roscosmos came aboard. The European Space Agency is leading the program, while Russia is providing the 2018 rover’s landing platform, some scientific instruments and its Proton rocket for both the ExoMars launches.
TGO, Schiaparelli to begin work in October
The TGO will study the Martian atmosphere and surface using four instruments over a period of five years. Its primary task is to look for methane and its degradation products in the Martian atmosphere. On our planet, methane is largely produced by microbes and other living beings. Presence of methane on the red planet would be viewed as a sign of present or past life.
The 660kg Schiaparelli will land on the Martian surface to collect meteorological and other types of data. However, Schiaparelli’s instruments will operate only for a few days until its batteries run out. Its primary objective is to prove the entry, descent and landing technology before the launch of the British-built rover in 2018. The rover will be capable of drilling deeper into the planet to look for evidence of living things.