The European Space Agency (ESA) is going to launch a mission to Mars on March 14, 2016. It will be the largest emissary to Mars in a generation reports SpaceFlight Now. If all goes as planned, the official ESA launch of the mission, known as, Project ExoMars will reach Mars by October of 2016.
The ESA has 22 member states, a cluster of European countries that have pooled the resources, time, and talent to discover more about the Earth and space as well as, develop new technologies. The official ESA website says the agency also works closely with organizations outside Europe, and other countries, like the United Kingdom and Canada also work under a Cooperation Agreement with the massive collective.
The ESA launching of a mission to Mars is a highly anticipated event that has been in the works for over 10 years. The ESA mission was approved by all of the member states in 2005. However, several obstacles came across the path of the ambitious launch to Mars. There were mission funding problems, premature beginnings and technical crises to be overcome before the ESA launch to Mars, and their overall mission was ready to proceed as planned on Monday.
The official name of the ESA mission to Mars is the Project ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter; its Proton Rocket will be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, according to Space Flight Now. The main criteria for the Monday Mars mission will be to investigate the methane gas in the Martian atmosphere. Through launching the orbiter on the mission to Mars, the ESA will attempt to find pockets of the gas in Mars atmosphere. In 2004, Europe discovered small amounts of methane in the atmosphere during the Mars Express Mission. Scientists in the United States located methane emissions issuing from the planet’s northern hemisphere. Here on Earth, 90 percent of methane is produced by living organisms. All of these exciting findings raised the question of the possibility of life on Mars. The mission to launch a spacecraft was more pressing, as suddenly researchers were wondering if Mars was either biologically or geologically active.
Unfortunately, the methane gas vanished in the space of several years, a confusing turn for scientists. SpaceFlight Now explains that methane molecules should have taken hundreds of years to break down in the atmosphere. The ESA mission of launching their orbiter to Mars will look into all of the questions that the scientists have about the mysterious missing methane, whether it came from an active source, and why it disappeared in the first place. There is a great deal of curiosity from the ESA about whether the source is geological or biological, either one of which would be fascinating to the ESA scientists as well as scientists around the world. Jorge Vago, the ESA project scientist on the ExoMars mission, says if it is either one of the supposed sources, the gas is coming from a subsurface. It would mean liquid water is present on Mars. Liquid water equals life on Mars.
As far as the geological question of the methane gases, Jean-Pierre Bibring says the geologic source is especially exciting. BiBring is an ESA/ExoMars science team member and a Paris Sud University scientist. He explains that Mars is geologically dead, unlike Earth, where scalding magma and rock is in constant motion, roiling deep beneath the surface. Bilbring says that the Earth, which is larger than the planet Mars, will one day grow as still and cold beneath the surface of Mars before the sun blinks out.
As recently as a few million years ago, Martian volcanic activity came to an end. However, the outgassing, or the escape of gases from beneath the surface, may be the explanation for the appearance of the traces gases. This is where the ESA Trace Gas Orbiter steps in. ESA will not only investigate the trace methane gases but other possible emissions from the surface as well.
In addition to the Trace Gas Orbiter, a stationary lander named Schiaparelli will tag along. Schiaparelli’s mission is first to land safely on Mars and earn the distinction of becoming the first spacecraft from Europe to land and return information from the Red Planet. The Space Reporter explains that three days before arriving at Mars, Schiaparelli will detach from the Orbiter and descend to Mars, landing on a predetermined area called Meridiani Planum, which has a layer of hematite, or iron oxide on it. Hematite usually forms in places with liquid water. Schiaparelli will also be looking for water vapor and nitrogen oxides.
By May of 2018, European Space Agency plans a mission to Mars where it will have a launch to send a rover to Mars where it will roam the area and drill 6 feet (2 meters) into the crust of the planet. Soil samples will be kept safe from the radiation that would destroy any signs of microbial life. Exploring the depths of the planet would be a first for mankind.
By Juanita Lewis
Edited by Cathy Milne
SpaceFlightNow: Ambitious European-led Mars mission ready for liftoff
ESA: About us
The Space Reporter: Russian and European space agencies to watch Mars mission on Monday
The Independent: UK in mission to find life on Mars as European Space Agency probe set to leave Earth
Image Courtesy of the European Space Agency’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License