Is there Life on Mars?


The ExoMars spacecraft to Mars blasted off from a launchpad at the Baikonor cosmodrome in Kazakhstan today in a further bid to answer one of Mankind’s most frequently asked questions about Space – is there life on Mars.

The mission, a joint Russian-EU initiative, through the collaboration of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, set course for the Red Planet determined to find traces of life forms on Martian soil – Earth’s nearest planetary cousin after the Moon.

The 7 month journey to Mars began at 09:31 GMT, as the Proton rocket left Earth. Installed on the rocket, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will travel the 300 million miles to Mars and begin its mission by circling the planet, detecting trace gases in its atmosphere. The key substance researchers wish to find is methane.

Methane is what is known as a ‘biosignature’, as its presence may indicate the existence of life. On Earth, many microrganisms produce methane as a waste product of biological processes. However, methane may also be produced by geological activity. The ExoMars mission seeks to determine whether biological processes are responsible on Mars.

The goal of the TGO is to map where methane is produced, and lay the groundwork for a further mission. ExoMars 2016 is the first phase of a $1.32 billion Martian programme. In this first phase, after orbiting the planet, the Schiaparelli Mars lander will be deployed to the surface of Mars, where it will conduct the mapping exercise, and test landing sites. It is estimated to descend to Mars on 16-19 October. The Schiaparelli landing itself will give crucial information to space scientists about how best to construct a more elaborate landing vehicle for the next Mars mission.

The ExoMars project is pioneering in its partnership, and innovative methods. While the TGO will primarily look for methane in the atmosphere, it will also look for deposits of water in the form of ice, both on and directly below the surface of the planet.

Russian Proton M rocket similar to one carrying ExoMars. (Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images).

Based on the findings of the lander, sites for the next part of ExoMars will be determined. The second launch is scheduled for 2018. However, even just hours after the first mission has been launched, concerns over delays to the 2018 mission loom large.

These delays are rumoured to be due to a lack of funding and technical problems for the ExoMars project, something which was raised as early as 2014. Similar concerns may have influenced the project to halve the number of potential landing sites from four to two.

“We have not yet finished the talks with the chief of the European Space Agency. The second part of the ExoMars mission may be delayed to 2020,” said Igor Komarov, the chief of Roscosmos.


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