Europe and Russia on 14 March 2016 launched an unmanned spacecraft, named ExoMars 2016, to smell Mars' atmosphere for gassy evidence that life once existed on the Red Planet, or may still be.
ExoMars 2016, the first of a two-phase Mars exploration, was hoisted from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Russian Proton rocket.
With its suite of high-tech instruments, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) shall arrive at the Red Planet on 19 October 2016 after completing a seven month long journey of 496 million kilometers through space.
A key goal of the mission is to analyse methane, a gas which on Earth is created in large part by living microbes, and traces of which were observed by previous Mars missions.
What is ExoMars?
The ExoMars programme is a joint endeavour between European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
The primary goal of the ExoMars programme is to address the question of whether life has ever existed on Mars. This relates to its name, with the ‘exo’ referring to the study of exobiology – the possible existence of life beyond Earth (sometimes also referred to as astrobiology).
Two missions of ExoMars
The programme comprises of two missions. The first launched in March 2016 and consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. The second mission of Exo Mars will be launched in 2018.
On the one hand, TGO’s main objectives are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. On the other, Schiaparelli will test key technologies in preparation for ESA's contribution to subsequent missions to Mars.
The second mission planned for launch in 2018 comprises of a rover and surface science platform. It will carry a drill and a suite of instruments dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry research. The 2016 TGO will act as a relay for the 2018 mission.
At present there are two rovers functional on the Mars. These are Curiosity and Opportunity which were sent by NASA, the space agency of the US.
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When: 14 March 2016