Missions on Mars are something you got kind of used to by now. From time to time, some rocket headed to Mars is launched, and this gets in the news for a brief time. At least that’s how most of the people see this. The ones who are more into the field and more curious about the topic know that this is not something we humans casually do. And we don’t do it just for the sake of it. A mission to Mars with the whole package, a rover, and everything, costs about 3 billion dollars. So when we send something to Mars, it’d better bring back something significant.
The mission in preparation right now is called ExoMars, and its rover is planned for launch in 2022.
The ExoMars mission actually started a while ago, with ideas tracing back to 2001. That’s just to see how much time these things take. Indeed, missions at NASA, ESA, or any other agency are prioritized differently, and most probably, ExoMars wasn’t much of a priority for a few years. The planned launch date for the rover was 2009, and initially, there were ideas of an MSR (Mars sample return) mission to be started later. In 2009, ESA (the European Space Agency) and ROSCOSMOS (the Russian Space Agency) were only proposing ideas, and they shaped the idea of an atmospheric research orbiter (now named the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter – TGO) to accompany the rover on its mission to Mars.
Initially, ESA thought that collaboration with NASA would be a great thing, as they could provide vehicles for getting to Mars, and NASA thought it would be a great thing too. However, in 2012, NASA had to end their involvement with the ExoMars project as their budget was tight, and they ‘prioritized’ something else, namely the James Webb Space Telescope. So what came next was ROSCOSMOS becoming fully involved in the ExoMars mission, ‘full-time’ partners with ESA, with a few conditions: their ‘payment’ for the collaboration would be two Proton launch systems, the TGS will include two Russian instruments, and all the scientific data will be shared with them.
The whole ExoMars mission was split in two, with launches in 2016 and 2018. The 2016 launch was meant to get the TGO and a test lander named Schiaparelli to Mars, and so it did. The TGO worked just fine, while Schiaparelli, a lander meant to land softly and test new technologies for landing on Mars, failed to send anything back to Earth. Nothing was received from it, and NASA released an image with what looks like a crash site a while later.
Of course, Schiaparelli wouldn’t have been useless, only testing whether it could land or not. Still, it was also equipped with instruments meant to get data about the sandstorms on Mars, as it was intendedly sent during the sandstorms period on Mars.
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The Trace Gas Orbiter and methane
The orbiter has an exciting purpose: studying some gases in the atmosphere that could lead to conclusions about biological activity on Mars, past or present. Trace gases are very rare and in small quantities in planetary atmospheres. On Earth, for example, are gases that are anything but nitrogen, oxygen, or argon (although that is in minimal amounts here, too), which make 99.934% of our atmosphere. Such a gas is methane. On Mars, such gases are methane, acetylene, or nitrogen dioxide.
Methane is produced here on Earth “as a by-product of microbial metabolism in the decomposition of biomass by single-celled organisms known as methanogens from the ancient Archaea family, distinct from bacteria and eukaryotes” says ESA when motivating the mission, and the interesting thing is that it appeared in the atmosphere a very long time ago before our planet even had oxygen in its atmosphere. Of course, now we know that Mars doesn’t have oxygen, but organisms existed on Earth before we had oxygen, so why wouldn’t it be the same on Mars?
Studying the methane in Mars’ atmosphere could lead us to valuable information about ‘life’ on Mars, be it present or past. Why do I say that? Well, methane could be released in the atmosphere from the actual present-day existence of bacteria, but it could also get up there from ‘trapped’ methane from a long time ago.
Well, the TGO works just fine, but we still have one more part of the mission! And that consists of the ExoMars rover, aptly named the “Rosalind Franklin” rover, after a chemist and DNA researcher. It is scheduled for launch in the fall of 2022, and it will arrive somewhere in the middle of 2023.
This whole ExoMars program is very astrobiology-oriented, and the rover doesn’t let down. It will basically contain a biology laboratory named “the Pasteur analytical laboratory.” It aims to look for biomolecules and biosignatures. Some of its instruments are MOMA, the Mars Organic Molecule Analyser (which searches for organic compounds in the soil samples the rover will collect), RLS, the Raman Laser Spectrometer (which identifies the mineral products and indicators of biological activity), or MicrOmega-IR, an infrared hyperspectral microscope (which also searches for biosignatures).
It will be an amazing journey for sure, and let’s hope for the best! Who knows, maybe the information we will receive from “Rosalind Franklin” will be essential in finding something new. One thing is for sure, and that is that it will lead to something new. Research doesn’t mean coming with a fantastic short solution to some problem. Most of the time, it means taking time and making little steps, day by day.
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Author at ‘The Secrets Of The Universe’, I am a science student from Romania. I am also the founder of Astronomy Hub, an organization for popularizing astronomy and astrophysics. I love reading philosophy and literature, enjoy classical rock, blues, and watch movies.