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Launch, ExoMars 2016
Launch, ExoMars 2016

A Russian-made Proton rocket did its job on Monday, successfully blasting off and embarking upon a journey to Mars.

Launched from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the rocket is part of a joint scientific effort between Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) known as ExoMars 2016-2018. One of the mission’s goals is to search for signs of gasses that could help answer the most compelling question about Mars: Did life ever exist there?

As a spectator experience, liftoff was partly anti-climatic as cloud cover obscured much of the view of the rocket’s path. The rocket is carrying an orbiter and mini lander and they’re expected to reach Mars in October. Once they arrive at the Red Planet, the Trace Gas Orbiter will eventually begin traveling 400 kilometers above the surface as it searches for methane and other trace gasses associated with biological activity.

“The instruments onboard the Orbiter will carry out a variety of measurements to investigate the location and nature of sources that produce these gases,” ExoMars said on its Web page.

Why is finding methane so important?

Methane, a gas found in the Earth’s atmosphere, is almost completely produced by living organisms. Plumes of the gas were detected in the northern hemisphere of Mars and caused quite a stir, but the big question now is what is the source.

“If life ever arose on the Red Planet,” ExoMars scientists wrote, “it probably did when Mars was warmer and wetter, sometime within the first billion years following planetary formation. Conditions then were similar to those when microbes gained a foothold on the young Earth. This marks Mars as a primary target for the search for signs of life in our Solar System.”

If scientists discover that the source of the methane is biotic, then ExoMars says “two scenarios could be considered: either long-extinct microbes, which disappeared millions of years ago, have left the methane frozen in the Martian upper subsurface, and this gas is being released into the atmosphere today as temperatures and pressure near the surface change, or some very resistant methane-producing organisms still survive.”

While that scenario sounds thrilling, scientists note that the methane could come from the oxidation of iron, similar to what occurs at a hot springs. That’s not quite as exciting.

Another task the Orbiter will perform is to relay data for the 2018 rover mission and continue to do so until the end of 2022.

The lander, known as the Schiaparelli, is designed to test technologies needed to land and explore the Mars surface. The information Schiaparelli provides will help managers prepare a second rover scheduled to be sent to the planet in 2018, part of the second phase of the ExoMars effort.

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