A European space probe launched today in a bid to find out whether there is life on Mars. Europe’s ExoMars soared into the sky on a Proton rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, at 09.31 U.T., to begin a seven-month voyage to the red planet, arriving in October.
It will give a second chance to scientists who lost out when the UK’s Beagle 2 lander failed to deploy properly and “phone home” on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day, 2003.
ExoMars was originally supposed to be a joint mission by the European Space Agency and NASA. But cash-strapped NASA pulled out and the mission looked in jeopardy until Russia agreed to be new partners.
ExoMars is made up of two parts, a spacecraft that will begin to circle the red planet, called the Trace Gas Orbiter, and a test lander, named Schiaparelli, which will be sent to the martian surface.
The Orbiter will attempt to sniff out traces of gases like methane in the atmosphere that could be evidence that life has not only occurred on Mars but it still there today. Its “chemistry lab” is partly built on instruments designed for Beagle 2. It will also take spectacular photos with its colour, stereo camera.
Schiaparelli is also known as the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module because it will be using technology for a more ambitious British-built rover that is due to be sent to Mars in 2018. It is currently being tested in Stevenage.
Beagle 2, the brainchild of mutton-chopped Professor Colin Pillinger, was specially designed to find life. It was feared crashed. But after the inspirational professor died in 2014, NASA revealed photos showing it had landed safely on Mars.
British planetary scientist Colin Wilson built an instrument for Beagle 2 to detect and measure the wind at the martian surface. He finally has a chance to see it work on Schiaparelli.
Dr Wilson, of the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics, told Skymania News: “I think all of us who worked on the Beagle 2 Mars lander have Christmas Day 2003 etched firmly into our memories – the day Beagle 2 failed to report back from the surface of Mars.
“It has taken until now to finally get another European mission to Mars – and it’s a delight to see the wind sensor I designed for Beagle 2 finally get its chance to go to Mars, even though it’s taken some time!”
He added: “My wind sensor is now part of an Italian-led weather station; other sensors will measure pressure temperature, humidity and airborne dust. It will also measure, for the first time, Mars’ electrical field.
“When windblown dust and sand particles collide, they can get electrically charged, rather like if you rub a party balloon on a woolly jumper. Is electrical charge a large part of the reason that dust starts to coat all rover surfaces on Mars?
“We’re looking forward to a landing more successful than that of the Beagle 2, so that we can start investigating all of this!”
Dr Manish Patel, of the Open University, also worked on an instrument for Beagle 2, and will now see an advanced version of it fly on Trace Gas Orbiter. It is an ultraviolet spectrometer that will measure sunlight to help analyse the martian atmosphere.
Dr Patel told Skymania News: “There are some direct links between Beagle 2 and the Orbiter, namely the instrument that I am co-leading, called NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery). The experiment’s ultraviolet and visible mode is based on an evolution of the UV sensor that I designed and built for Beagle 2, which was measuring sunlight at the martian surface.
“Its more sophisticated successor will measure sunlight through the Mars atmosphere, but from orbit, which allows global mapping and a more thorough understanding of the martian atmosphere as a whole.”
Space scientists have been puzzle by detections of localised plumes of methane on Mars which could be produced by living organisms called methanogens. Another European orbiter, Mars Express, reported methane concentrated in regions where water vapour and underground ice were concentrated. And NASA observers on Earth made similar discoveries.
However, they cannot be certain because methane can also be produced by geological processes.
Dr Patel said: “The new Orbiter is specifically designed to seek out and quantify the trace gases, with less that one per cent abundance, in the atmosphere – so species like methane, which controversially is not supposed to be there.
“It will map geographically where the methane is at a global scale, and importantly how the abundance varies as a function of time of day and year. It will also tell us the vertical distribution, which will help us understand how it is transported.
“Trace Gas Orbiter differs from Beagle 2 in that Beagle was aimed at analysing the surface composition for traces of life – TGO is instead looking at the potential signatures of biologically relevant gases in the atmosphere.
“They are “biologically relevant” rather than biological because the presence of methane can occur in the absence of life, so we will be looking to try and find out the sources, so that we can work out the process of origin.”
Of today’s launch, Dr Patel said: “It’s scary but very exciting. I have spent 13 years of my life working on an instrument that is now sitting on top of a huge bomb!”
Update: ExoMars launched successfully and on time, and has completed three of four burns while still in Earth orbit. We still have to wait several nail-biting hours to hear that a fourth burn has sent the probe heading to Mars. An ESA blog post explains why it takes so long.
Update 2: Nearly 12 hours after launch, mission controllers have confirmed that the ExoMars spacecraft has separated from the final stage of its rocket booster and is on its way to Mars. Minutes earlier, the fourth of four engine burns during the day had sent the probe out of Earth’s orbit to begin its seven month journey across space.
Update 3: At 21.29 UT, the spacecraft “phoned home”, sending its first signal since launch to confirm it was alive and well. As the signal appeared on screen at mission control there were huge cheers from the scientists and engineers.
Report by Paul Sutherland at mission control, Darmstadt.