Life on Mars? Space agencies prepare to send spacecraft to red planet

Artist's impression of the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars.
Artist's impression of the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars. ESA/ATG medialab

Was Mars once home to a thriving ecosystem? Does microbial life exist somewhere deep beneath the red planet’s surface? We still don’t know, but the European Space Agency and Russia hope their spacecraft, ExoMars — which will launch next week —will help answer those questions.

READ MORE: One-year spaceman sees mission as ‘stepping stone’ to Mars

How do you look for life — even microbial — on a planet as desolate as Mars? In different ways.

One way is to study the gases in the planet’s (thin) atmosphere. That will be ExoMars’s Trace Gas Orbiter’s (TGO) job.

One of the primary gases that TGO will be searching for is methane. Here on Earth, more than 90 per cent of the gas is generated though living organisms. Using that knowledge, it’s hoped that if we can find methane, it could suggest that it’s being created by living organisms.

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Methane has already been found on Mars. In December 2014, a study revealed that the Martian rover Curiosity had detected a tenfold rise in methane around it. However, it was unclear as to whether or not organisms produced it: methane can exist without them. Collecting data with newer and more sensitive technology, such as what can be found on TGO, will help better understand from where the methane could be generating.

TGO will also be looking for subsurface hydrogen, which could indicate water-ice on Mars. A location with water-ice might be an optimum landing site for future manned-missions to Mars.

Another facet of the ExoMars mission is to analyze the planet from down below using the lander Schiaparelli.


An overview of Schiaparelli’s descent and landing sequence on Mars.

Schiaparelli has a payload known as DREAMS (Dust Characterisation, Risk Assessment, and Environment Analyser on the Martian Surface) which consists of sensors that will basically monitor the weather on Mars, including wind speed and direction, humidity, atmospheric temperature and more. It will also collect data on the possible dangers of dust — of which Mars has plenty — helping scientists to better understand the hazards humans may face once we begin exploring the red planet. The probe is expected to gather information so long as its batteries continue going, which is somewhere between two and eight days.

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The spacecraft is scheduled to launch on March 14 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It will arrive at Mars on October 19.

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