Mars or Bust in 2016: New Unmanned Mission to the Red Planet

The European Space Agency's ExoMars rover will visit the red planet by 2016, to study the environment conditions -- and hopefully see signs of life.ESA/AEOS Medialab

America and Europe have come together with one motto in mind -- Mars or Bust: 2016.

On the deep space road trip, the latest collaboration between the European Space Administration (ESA) and NASA, the space agencies will send an orbiter and a descent and landing module to brave the red planet's harsh dust storms in 2016 and then again in 2018.

They'll study the atmosphere and conditions on the planet, hunt for signs of life -- and possibly return Martian samples to Earth.

Called the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission, the venture came to fruition when both ESA and NASA realized that neither had the resources needed to go it alone. The result, the Joint Mars Exploration Program, was formed.

Though the mission is unmanned, it is designed to demonstrate two fundamental components that could aid in future Mars exploration. The Trace Gas Orbiter that will fly to the red planet will study atmospheric trace gases for biological or geological activity. And the the Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (or EDM)  will demonstrate the best possible way to land on the red planet.

“On the Martian surface, the EDM will behave as an environmental station for a few days,” Jorge Vago, one of the scientists behind the ExoMars mission, told “It will measure wind speed and direction, pressure, temperature, humidity and atmospheric electrification.”

But the skies for the EDM won’t exactly be ideal for landing. The researchers behind the project specifically chose to land the module in 2016 during Mars’s dust storm season, making it the first vehicle of its kind to land during such harsh conditions.

“The EDM … is being designed to cope with a dust storm, if it happens to encounter one,” Vago told “From this point of view, the entry profile that we will be able to derive will be important for the design of future ESA and NASA missions.”

In order to determine the atmospheric conditions during the EDM’s descent, teams of scientists from nine countries around the globe are creating an array of sensors to contribute to the DREAMS (Dust characterization, Risk assessment, and Environment Analyzer on the Martian Surface) scientific payload carried by the EDM. These sensors will test wind speed, direction, humidity, and even the transparency of the atmosphere.

A third element to the program is added in 2018, when the orbiter will be sent to Mars a second time with the EDM and a Joint ExoMars-C Rover in tow. 

Apart from creating and demonstrating the technology needed for a mission to Mars, the ExoMars project has another agenda as well -- Mars Sample Return (MSR). The rover will aid in this mission by acquiring samples and depositing them in a caching system for later retrieval by MSR. But more importantly, the rover will search for traces of life on the surface and subsurface of the planet.

Both NASA and ESA agree that what the rover potentially uncovers could have a significant impact on the future of manned space flight to Mars. Vago expressed the need for a monumental discovery to be unearthed during the ExoMars mission.

“Human spaceflight is expensive around Earth orbit, and will be even more expensive for Mars,” Vago told “We therefore need a catalyzing find to create the political drive to go to Mars. In my view, if we would find traces of life on Mars, either with ExoMars or MSL, this would accelerate Mars Sample Return. MSR may help to confirm the results and if this is so, pave the way for the human exploration of Mars.”

“If we do not find anything spectacular, I am afraid astronauts on Mars will always be in the future plans,” Vago said.