Latest mission to Mars gets full 2020 go-ahead

19 Dec 2016

Earth and Mars. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

ESA’s ExoMars mission is gathering speed, with stage two of the Mars-bound project finally receiving its go-ahead for a 2020 launch date.

Stage one of ExoMars was completed in October, when ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter reached the Red Planet and sent a rover down to check out the surface.

Schiaparelli, though, carried a bit too much speed and crashed, with researchers back on Earth fairly cut up about the substantial failure, wrapped in an overall success.

But, while the Trace Gas Orbiter continues to do its stuff as it orbits Mars, ESA is not resting on its laurels. It has signed up to the second part of the mission, which will leave our planet at the end of the decade.

In 2020, the ESA, along with its Russian colleagues, will launch a rover and surface platform, which will use the Trace Gas Orbiter as a relay point when it arrives on Mars.

ESA’s rover will be the first to land on Mars, with the capability to drill two metres into the planet’s surface, providing scientists with all the evidence needed to find out if Mars ever housed much life.

The Russian platform will carry instruments focused on the local atmosphere and surroundings.

“ExoMars is a cornerstone of ESA’s exploration programme,” said ESA’s David Parker, adding that a “miniaturised life-search laboratory and advanced robotic technology” should help his team answer everything there is to know about Mars.

“Following the renewed support demonstrated by ESA member states in the recent ministerial council, this new contract allows us to complete the flight models of the European elements and keeps us on track for a July 2020 launch.”

The Trace Gas Orbiter, for its part, will soon be exploring Mars’ make-up from orbit, taking a detailed inventory of trace gases, such as methane, which might be linked to biological or geological processes. The first test of the orbiter’s science instruments was recently completed.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic