Well, it’s time. The instruments are on board. All the major tests are done. And now, ExoMars 2016 is set to launch! ExoMars is being run by the ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, with an orbiter-lander combo set to arrive at Mars this October. The main focus of the mission is the orbiter, called the Trace Gas Orbiter, which will pretty much do what its name suggests: look for trace gases in the Martian atmosphere.
Mostly, it’s searching for compounds made of carbon and hydrogen, as well as chemicals with sulfur in them, because those could be signs of geological — or biological — activity. And, the orbiter’s equipped to map the hydrogen on Mars up to a meter below the surface — which is useful, because one important thing that has hydrogen in it is ice.
So this mission will create a map of Mars’s water ice with ten times the resolution that we have now. ExoMars 2016 also includes a small test lander, known as Schiaparelli. Now, the lander only comes with a few days’ worth of battery life, so it isn’t going to be doing much investigating on the Red Planet itself. But it is going to be testing the ESA’s Mars landing technique, which will help when the ExoMars 2018 mission arrives with a much more advanced lander and a rover.
This year’s mission was originally set to launch in January, but back in October, the ESA discovered some issues with a couple of Schiaparelli’s components. The problems were with sensors that monitor fuel pressure. So rather than take the risk of broken sensors leaking fuel and messing up the mission, the ESA decided to just push back the launch date while they took out the sensors entirely, since the lander will still work without them.
Luckily, a couple months’ delay doesn’t change much, the mission will have to use a little more fuel, but it’ll still get to Mars in time. The launch is set to blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 14th, and they have until March 25th before the launch window closes. And the launch will be livestreamed from the ESA’s website, if you want to watch! You can check this link.
Planetary scientist Dr Peter Grindrod said:
It’s incredibly exciting. This is a series of missions that’s trying to address one of the fundamental questions in science: is there life anywhere else besides the Earth?
Finding that life exists elsewhere in the solar system would be a huge discovery, so the evidence has to be strong. As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.