ExoMars mission set to land on the red planet later this year

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. (Credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. (Credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

The first mission of the joint European-Russian ExoMars program will blast off for the Red Planet next week.

The European Space Agency’s Mars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli landing module will launch on a Russian Roscosmos Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome,  Kazakhstan on March 14.

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The main objectives of the mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes, according to the ESA. The mission will also test key technologies that could be used for future missions to Mars.

After a seven-month journey, the Orbiter and Schiaparelli are expected to separate from the Proton on Oct. 16. The ESA spacecraft and landing module will enter Mars orbit on Oct. 19, with Schiaparelli landing on the planet for surface research.

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Scientists anticipate that the module will conduct science operations on the Red Planet until Oct. 23, although this schedule is still to be confirmed.

The Orbiter, which will carry scientific instruments from Europe and Russia, will start its own science operations in December 2017. “The Orbiter will perform detailed, remote observations of the Martian atmosphere, searching for evidence of gases of possible biological importance, such as methane and its degradation products,” said the ESA. “The instruments onboard the Orbiter will carry out a variety of measurements to investigate the location and nature of sources that produce these gases.”

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Science operations on the Orbiter are expected to last five years. The spacecraft will also be used to relay data for ExoMars’ 2018 rover mission and until the end of 2022.