We’re headed back to Mars!
published during a waxing crescent moon.
we're headed back to mars!

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Credit: ESA

Following a successful launch, the European Space Agency-led ExoMars mission is on its way to Mars. The spacecraft lifted off at 5:31 am EDT (3:31 pm local time) from Kazakhstan’s historic Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Russian Proton-M rocket. The spacecraft, which is composed of an orbiter and a lander, is expected to arrive at the Red Planet in October of this year.

“It’s been a long journey getting the first ExoMars mission to the launch pad, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of our international teams, a new era of Mars exploration is now within our reach,” Johann-Dietrich Woerner, ESA’s Director General said in a press release

At 5:29 pm EDT (21:29 GMT), ESA’s control center in Darmstadt, Germany received confirmation from the spacecraft that it was in good health and had deployed its solar arrays–a sign that ExoMars was officially on its way!

Applause erupted throughout the control center after Michel Denis, of ESA operations, confirmed the acquisition of signal. “We have a mission,” he said during a live press conference. “For the second time we are going to Mars.” (ESA’s first trip to the Red Planet was in 2003 with the Mars Express orbiter.)

“It’s been a wonderful day and for everything to go flawlessly,” Denis explained. “Brilliant work by the whole team. Go Mars and go ExoMars!”

This mission is just the first phase of ESA’s dual-step ExoMars program, which was designed hunt for life  on our closest planetary neighbor. The orbiter is tasked with scanning the atmosphere in search of trace gasses. Designated the Trace Gas Orbiter (or TGO for short), the orbiter is designed to act like a big nose in space, sniffing out specific gasses such as methane. Here on Earth, the majority of methane is produced by biological sources, such as plants or animals, but the same may not be true on Mars. Methane has already been detected on the Red Planet, but scientists are not sure yet if this means there is life to be found. It’s possible that the pungent gas is a result of geological or volcanic activity.

Scientists have equipped the TGO with a suite of instruments designed to hunt for life. Two of the four instruments are packing multiple spectrometers, which are specialized instruments designed to identify the chemical signature of elements. Every chemical element absorbs and emits patterns of radiation unique to that element, much like a fingerprint—which a spectrometer analyzes and interprets to make an identification.

In addition to methane, water is an element central to the search for life. The Russian-built Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND) will search for deposits of water-ice up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) below the planet’s surface. FREND will also map out concentrations of hydrogen in the Martian soil. Hydrogen and oxygen are the two ingredients in water, but these elements can also be used to make other substances such as rocket fuel. Knowing how much hydrogen is in the Martian surface could be beneficial to future Red Planet missions.

But that’s not all. TGO is also carrying the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System or CaSSIS, which will provide high-resolution images of the Martian surface much like the ones we see from the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Swiss-built CaSSIS has a slightly lower resolution than HiRISE, and will focus on scouting for future landing sites as well as observing seasonal changes in surface features.

The other member of this preliminary ExoMars duo is the Schiaparelli lander. The pair is scheduled to separate a few days before arriving at Mars. Then, on October 19th, the lander is expected to touch down on the Martian surface. One of Schiaparelli’s main goals is to test the technology needed to land a 660 kilogram (1320 pound) rover on Mars as part of the program’s second phase, scheduled to launch in 2018.

The lander is currently in hibernation mode to conserve its limited power supply, but will spring to life as soon as it approaches roughly 122 km (76 miles) above the Martian surface. The lander will be traveling at speeds of 21,000 kph (13,050 mph), but the heat shields will act as a braking mechanism, slowing the lander down to 1,650 kph (1,025 mph) before deploying a 12 m (39-foot) parachute. After the heat shield is jettisoned, the lander will then orient itself to the Martian surface with the help of radar sensors. A set of liquid-fueled thrusters will switch on, slowing the lander to a mere seven kph (4.3 mph) where it will drop approximately two meters (6.6 feet) to the surface. Schiaparelli should touch down as expected in Meridiani Planum. This region is of particular interest to scientists as it contains an ancient layer of hematite, a form of iron that is always formed near water on Earth.

Schiaparelli is only expected to last a few days before its battery dies; however, the little lander will collect as much data as it can in its short lifespan. The lander will be busy collecting data on Mars’s wind speed, humidity, air temperature and pressure through the different layers of the Martian atmosphere. It will also study dust grains in the atmosphere and how they interact with electric fields. Scientists are hopeful this will help them better understand the powerful dust storms we see on the surface.

If all goes according to plan and ESA has the necessary funding, the second phase of the program is set to launch in 2018. This iteration of ExoMars will see a deep-drilling rover launch and begin a more intense search for life.