Europe and Russia launches ExoMars mission today to search for signs of life

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Mar 14, 2016, 4:21 PM EDT (Updated)

Sure, NASA already has Curiosity rolling around up on Mars, but now Europe and Russia are launching their own robot to the Red Planet — and they’ll be using the latest tech to search for signs of life.

A joint project between the European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency, the two-part ExoMars mission set off on its seven-month trip to Mars at the crack of dawn Monday morning. The mission is all about searching for life, and the probes will sniff the planet’s atmosphere, plus eventually explore the planet’s surface, to search for more evidence about current (or previous) life on Mars.

Today's launch will include the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli EDM Lander, which are scheduled to arrive in Martian orbit in October. The orbiter will settle into a stable orbit and take readings for different gases in the planet’s atmosphere, with a focus on traces of methane (which could hint at the existence of biological life). The Lander does not include an actual rover, but will instead serve as a test run to ensure the two space agencies can successfully land a payload intact. If all goes as planned, the ESA and Roscosmos will launch the ExoMars rover as part of a follow-up launch in 2018.


The tech on the lander is very cool, and is designed to jettison its heat shield and parachute after slowing the approach, and use onboard thrusters to hover approximately 6.5 feet above the surface to set up a soft landing. Once it sets down, the rig will use onboard batteries to take some weather tests for a few days, before shutting down for good. Basically, it’s a glorified landing test. If they’re able to land the 1,322-pound Schiaparelli, scientists believe they can scale up the technique to get the 4,000-pound rover there safely in 2019 (from the 2018 launch).

As The Verge notes, the ESA and Roscosmos plan to pack a ton of life-finding tools on the eventual rover mission, led by a drill capable of digging soil samples 6.5 feet below the planet’s surface. It’ll also have nine different technology packages on board to test samples for biological elements. If they actually find anything promising, it could prompt another (much more ambitious) mission to actually take Martian soil samples and bring them back to Earth. But, that’d still be a long way down the road.

Check out the launch footage in the livestream below:

(Via The Verge, ESA)