ExoMars: ‘giant nose’ to sniff out life on Mars prepares for launch

Space engineers are making final preparations for the
launch of a robot spacecraft designed to sniff out signs of life on Mars.

The probe, ExoMars 2016 – the first of a two-phase
exploration of the Red Planet by European and Russian scientists – is scheduled
to be blasted into space on a Proton rocket from Baikonour cosmodrome in
Kazakhstan at 0931 GMT on Monday.

The spacecraft consists of a module called Schiaparelli
that will test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for future probe
landings on Mars and a second main component, the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO,
that will analyse the planet’s atmosphere. In particular it will seek out the
presence of the gas methane which, on Earth, is produced by living organisms.

“Essentially our spacecraft is a giant nose in the sky,”
said Jorge Vago, an ExoMars project scientist based with the European Space
Agency (Esa). “We are going to use it to sniff out the presence of methane on
Mars and determine if it is being produced by biological processes.”

Methane is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation
within a few hundred years of its creation. Its presence on Mars would
therefore suggest life had recently been active there. The US robot rover
Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, initially found no sign of methane.
Subsequent analyses in 2014 did report the presence of methane in the Martian
atmosphere in one area. However, some scientists have argued that it may have
been created by non-biological means.

On Earth most methane is generated biologically, but it can
be made by chemical processes under the surface. To differentiate between these
two processes, the ExoMars trace gas detector will not only analyse methane
levels in more detail than any previous mission but also study other gases that
will provide information about its likely source. “If methane is found in the
presence of other complex hydrocarbon gases, such as propane or ethane, that
will be a strong indication that biological processes are involved,” said
another project scientist, Manish Patel, of the Open University.

“However, if we find methane in the presence of gases such
as sulphur dioxide, a chemical strongly associated with volcanic activity on
Earth, that will be a pretty sure sign that we are dealing with methane that
has come from the ground and is a byproduct of geological processes.”

By NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
ExoMars is expected to arrive at the Red Planet on 19
October after a journey of 308m miles (496m km) across space, and will be
followed by a second ExoMars mission, a Mars rover, scheduled for launch in
2018 – although Esa officials have warned that it may be delayed by budget
problems.

On Friday, Russian engineers completed the rollout of the
giant Proton rocket that will carry ExoMars to its destination, and on
Saturday, staff at Esa’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany – which
will run the mission once in space – conducted a dress rehearsal for the
launch. “We do a similar dress rehearsal for every launch,” said Paolo Ferri,
head of mission operations for Esa. “It’s a milestone that caps off several
years of preparation for any complex mission – designing, building and testing
the ground systems, preparing the flight operations procedures and then finally
an intensive period of team training.”

Finally, on Monday, the spacecraft is scheduled take off
from Baikonour. Then, when it has reached orbit, the TGO, still linked to the
Schiaparelli test lander, will separate from the fourth stage of its Proton
launcher and begin its seven-month journey to the Red Planet.

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Posted on March 15, 2016, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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