Is there life on Mars? The question has haunted humans for eons, and now the European Space Agency (ESA) is spending 1.3 billion euros to probe for an answer, teaming up with Russia’s space agency Roscosmos to launch the ExoMars mission. Two spacecraft, a solar-powered Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaperelli lander, hitched a ride on a Russian proton rocket, lifting off earlier today in Kazakhstan.

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If successful, ExoMars won’t simply focus on elusive Martian life. Instead, it could also pave the way for future landings on the red planet. And since the ESA has yet to land a craft on another planet, Schiaparelli could break records if it detaches from the orbiter and lands without event.

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Schiaparelli includes a “science package” that will primarily collect meteorological information. As the scientific technology will only operate until power runs out, about two to four sols, Schiaparelli’s primary purpose is to test out landing technology to see if it will work for future Mars missions.

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The Trace Gas Orbiter also includes scientific instruments that will study Mars’ atmosphere and determine whether there is any ice below the surface of the planet. Scientists theorize that if the orbiter detects methane, that could signal life.

That said, the presence of methane isn’t a guarantee of life as it is also produced by geological processes. Curiosity, NASA’s rover, found a huge increase in methane on Mars in 2013-2014, but we still don’t know why. ESA hopes the Trace Gas Orbiter will uncover answers. The orbiter will also act as a communications hub for ESA’s own rover set to launch in 2018.

Originally ESA and NASA planned ExoMars together, but NASA exited four years ago due to their budget. They’re now working on a separate Mars rover that will search for life with a launch planned for 2020. Roscosmos stepped in to provide proton rockets and scientific instruments.

For now, the world will have to wait until October 16, when the orbiter and lander will separate. A few days later, the Schiaparelli should touch down on Mars as the Trace Gas Orbiter enters orbit.


Images via ESA