ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter to sniff out former life on Mars

14 Mar 2016

Illustration of Schiaparelli separating from the Trace Gas Orbiter via ESA–D. Ducros

In the hope of finding trace evidence of the previous existence of biological life on Mars, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Trace Gas Orbiter will launch today (14 March) on a six-year mission.

The search for life on Mars continues today at 8.30am (GMT) with the launch of the Trace Gas Orbiter as part of the ESA’s ExoMars programme, along with a landing demonstrator module, known as Schiaparelli.

Both the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander will be sent on a seven-month journey to the outer reaches of our nearest planetary neighbour where both will undertake two very different missions.

The first, and arguably biggest focus of the ExoMars programme from a scientific perspective, will be the orbiter, which will be placed in the Martian atmosphere where it will perform detailed analysis of its composition, particularly looking for evidence of gases of possible biological importance, such as methane and its degradation products.

Its four scientific instruments will then spend the next five years – until 2022 – investigating where exactly the location and nature of sources that produce these gases is.

Life on Mars ExoMars orbiter

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli during vibration testing. Image via ESA–S. Corvaja, 2015

The orbiter also has a secondary function, which will play a crucial part in the other element of the mission, that being the Schiaparelli demonstrator lander.

Groundwork for 2018 rover mission

With the aim of creating a safer lander for humans to eventually land on the surface of Mars – as well as creating a safer lander for equipment in general – the Schiaparelli lander will be launched three days prior to the orbiter entering the Martian atmosphere.

Located at the front of the orbiter, Schiaparelli – named after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli – is built from special material for thermal protection and includes a parachute system, a radar Doppler altimeter system, and a final braking system controlled by liquid propulsion.

During the landing process, it will send back huge streams of data about its performance until it makes its landing on the surface of Mars using the orbiter as its means of transmitting this information back to Earth.


Schiaparelli prepares for thermal tests. Image via ESA – B. Bethge

For the most part, this will be the extent of its mission as its power source comes from limited-life batteries aboard the lander, however, the ESA says that it has been equipped with some rudimentary sensors to do some limited research before it runs out of juice.

All of this will lead towards the eventual launch of a new rover to be deployed on the surface of Mars jointly by the ESA and Roscosmos for 2018 to search for signs of past and present life on Mars by characterising the water/geochemical environment as a function of depth in the shallow subsurface.

You can watch the launch from the ESA’s launchpad at Kourou in French Guiana from their livestream here with the launch scheduled to begin at 09.30am (GMT).

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic