ExoMars Mission Set to Look for Life on the Red Planet

A rover will investigate Martian atmospheric trace gases and their sources.

Searching For Life On Mars

People want one thing from space more than anything else: neighbors. Astronomers have cobbled together rough equations to help guess how likely or unlikely neighbors are. Telescopes scan the heavens for deliberate signals beamed in from far away. Many of these potential neighbors already have names, such as “Venusians,” “Romulans,” or plain-old "extra-terrestrials.”

Illustration of ExoMars Schiaparelli Module and Trace Gas Orbiter
Illustration of ExoMars Schiaparelli Module and Trace Gas Orbiter
ESA/ATG medialab

Today the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, its Russian counterpart, launched their ExoMars mission, which is designed to figure out if Earth has, or once had, neighbors on Mars.

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The ExoMars mission is carrying two projects to the Red Planet. An Orbiter will circle the planet and analyze gases that make up a small part of its weak atmosphere. NASA’s Curiosity rover detected methane on Mars in 2014, a discovery that has since kindled hopes that some kind of living organism is producing it. On Earth, living things can produce methane as a metabolic by-product, most famously, of soil microbes, cows, and teenage boys.

ExoMars SCC and Breeze US are encapsulated into the Payload Fairing
ExoMars SCC and Breeze US are encapsulated into the Payload Fairing
Photographer: Boris Bethge

Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon, which on Earth also makes it a terrific fuel. Natural gas is mostly methane, or a molecule of four hydrogen atoms pinned to one carbon atom.

But living things aren’t the only source of methane. Scientists have simulated in labs how high heat and pressure such as that of the Earth's interior can forge methane, which then leaks up to the surface. Besides, Saturn’s hydrocarbon moon, Titan, has entire lakes of liquid methane, and no one’s suggesting excessive bovine activity there.

The ExoMars orbiter will help scientists understand if Mars’s methane is geological or biological in origin.

The flight model of the ExoMars Schiaparelli demonstrator module pictured prior to the start of thermal tests.
The flight model of the ExoMars Schiaparelli demonstrator module pictured prior to the start of thermal tests.
Photographer: Boris Bethge

The second project ExoMars is carrying is called the Schiaparelli module, named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, a 19thcentury Italian astronomer who studied the Martian surface. This module is a test for entering the Mars atmosphere, descending safely, and landing in one piece. It’s a practice run for a second ExoMars mission, to be launched in 2018, which will deliver a life- and fossil-detecting rover.

Even if no current or past evidence of life on Mars is ever found, the better we get at going to Mars, the easier it may be eventually to send people there—making sure the planet has neighbors even if we have to place them there ourselves.

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