Updated: 23rd October 2017

ExoMars spacecraft sets off in search of alien life

Joint mission by European and Russian space agencies to scour red planet for methane released by alien organisms

The search for life on Mars has entered a new era with the launch of a spacecraft built to sniff out waste gases released by alien organisms.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter blasted into an overcast sky on a Proton rocket from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on Monday.

A joint mission by the European and Russian space agencies, the probe will circle the red planet and measure minute levels of atmospheric gases, among which may be the natural waste products of microbial Martians.

Mission scientists hope in particular to get to the bottom of the Martian methane mystery. The gas is produced in abundance by life on Earth, and its presence on Mars could come from life on, or under, the surface. But the gas is also released by chemical reactions in rocks, so scientists cannot be sure of its source.

Maybe, maybe we can find out if theres life extant on the red planet, said Mark McCaughrean, senior science adviser at the European Space Agency (ESA), moments before the launch.

Scientists have found hints of methane on Mars before. In 2004, ESAs Mars Express orbiter detected levels of methane in the atmosphere at about 10 parts in a billion, suggesting there is at least some methane being produced on the planet. Ten years later, Nasas Curiosity rover recorded spikes in methane levels on the Martian surface.

ExoMars mission

Micha Schmidt, a spacecraft operations manager at ESA, said Mondays launch and the initial burns that put the Proton rocket on course for Mars were reading like a picture book performance.

Sensors on board the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will sniff out traces of gases in the Martian atmosphere that should help researchers work out the source of methane on the planet. Specifically, if methane is detected alongside other complex hydrocarbons, such as propane or ethane, the source is more likely to be life than lumps of rock. But if the probe detects sulphur dioxide instead of large organic compounds, the odds will favour a geological origin for the methane.

The TGO will take seven months to travel 308m miles to Mars. Once there, the main spacecraft will release a small lander, Schiaparelli, which will test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for future landings on the planet. It will send back data for several days after touching down.

A high-resolution camera on the orbiter will investigate dark stripes that have been spotted on Martian cliff faces. Thought to be liquid water, the streaks appear in the spring, grow throughout the summer, and then gradually disappear.

The TGO is the first part of the ExoMars mission and will be followed by a rover capable of drilling up to 2 metres beneath the surface in search of microbial life. The rover is scheduled for launch in 2018, though ESA has warned the mission may be delayed by funding problems.

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