The ExoMars launch will happen soon.
It’s a journey that will last seven months and hopes to answer the now-famous question posed by the late David Bowie: “Is there life on Mars?”
Later today, a satellite will leave from Kazakhstan headed towards the Red Planet. It’s a joint venture between the the Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency, but it has a distinctly Canadian connection. When the second part of the mission, which aims to place a Curiosity-style rover on Mars again, launches in a couple years, the wheels and suspension of that vehicle will be courtesy the Canadian Space Agency and were manufactured by B.C.’s Macdonald Dettwiler.
Macdonald Dettwiler is the same company that helped out with NASA’s Curiosity Mission. On board Curiosity is a geology instrument called ASPX which allows the rover to calculate the chemical composition of the rocks and soil on Mars. The instrument’s goal is nothing less than to determine if the Mars has, or has ever had, the conditions to support life.
The ExoMars launch is scheduled for 5:31AM ET on Monday March 14th. It completed a successful dress rehearsal last week that was commented on by Paolo Ferri, Head of Mission Operations.
“Today’s rehearsal is one of the final steps in being ready to go – we do a similar dress rehearsal for every launch,” said Ferri. “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.”
The mission will be particularity interested in traces of methane on Mars because the chemical compound is closely linked to biological activity on earth. The main purpose of today’s launch is to atmospherically map Mars with a satellite called the Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO. The TGO will circle Mars at an altitude of approximately 400 kilometres and is equipped with instruments that are designed to detect atmospheric trace gases such as water vapour, nitrogen oxides and methane.
But one expert says simply locating methane isn’t enough.
“Detecting methane by itself doesn’t tell you whether it is produced biologically or geologically – you need to look at the whole suite of atmospheric behaviour,” says Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “That would be considered the home run for TGO, to define the source of methane.”
In 2018, the TGO will transition to another role. It will serve primarily to provide communications to the The ExoMars rover, scheduled for launch in 2018. The TGO will act as a data relay centre for the rover.
The ExoMars rover, scheduled for launch in 2018, is most interesting for the fact that it will collect samples with a drill. After landing via the aid of parachutes, thrusters, and damping systems it will be the first mission to move across Mars’s surface and study the planet at depth, says The European Space Agency.
When asked about the capabilities of the mission ExoMars project scientist Håkan Svedhem,, deliberely or not, threw just a little shade on NASA.
“It has instruments that are much, much more sensitive than in the past,” he said. “It can detect molecules at a level of parts per trillion.”