Chemistry and Physics

The ExoMars Missions: Is there life on Mars?

Why Mars?… On our planet, where there is water, there is life. There is plenty of evidence that liquid water once flowed on Mars. Landforms that could be due to water eroding the landscape are visible, and multiple landers have detected minerals on the surface which usually form in the presence of liquid water. Many scientists have speculated that this could mean there is life to be found on Mars.

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads: In the late 1800s, several astronomers were even convinced that there were canals on Mars which could only have been created by intelligent beings. Unfortunately, this was shown to be an optical illusion due to the poorer quality of telescopes available at the time.

“…take samples from a depth of 2 meters and use its onboard lab to analyse them…”

We now know that water exists on Mars mainly as a solid, found in the planet’s polar ice caps. Our fascination with the red planet continues however, and many missions have jetted off on their hols, hoping to discover evidence of previous life. There are currently 6 orbiters and 2 rovers operational on the planet, with another- ExoMars’ rover – on the way!

What is ExoMars?

The ExoMars missions are a collaboration between The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos. The first mission, which launched and reached Mars in 2016, consists of a Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and a lander called Schiaparelli.

The second lander, scheduled for launch in 2020, is yet to be named. Like NASA’s Curiosity rover, the lander will be named by the lucky winner of a competition run by ESA (now closed).

The 2020 Rover & Science Platform

The (as yet unnamed) rover is the first machine which will be able to both roam about the surface and drill down to considerable depths. It will take samples from a depth of 2 meters and use its onboard lab to analyse them. It is hoped that the greater depth will mean the samples contain biomarkers (molecules generated by specific processes). At the surface, these biomarkers could have broken down due to radiation making it through the atmosphere. This could give a more accurate picture of the biological and chemical processes happening on the planet. The rover will land along with a science platform, which shall remain stationary to monitor the local atmosphere and sub-surface.

TGO & Schiaparelli

The main goal of the TGO is to search for methane and other atmospheric gases. The trace amount of methane in Mars’ atmosphere should be roughly the same across the whole planet, due to environment factors such as the wind mixing gases together. Previous measurements, however, show that there are seasonal and geographicallocational variations in the concentration of methane.

This variation means there must be a source which is actively producing methane. The main explanations currently favoured are; geological, such as rocks in volcanic areas deep underground interacting; biological, from underground microorganisms essentially farting; and trapped methane simply escaping slowly. The instruments onboard TGO are able to detect and map the presence of methane more accurately than has previously been possible, and it is hoped the measurements will help differentiate between the possible sources.

“The main goal of the TGO is to search for methane and other atmospheric gases.”

The other functions of the TGO include acting as a data relay for the landers on the surface, capturing images, and detection of radiation – the latter feature having already shown that future astronauts travelling to the red planet and back will be exposed to 60% of the radiation dose recommended for their entire careers.

Schiaparelli was originally intended to do some science on the surface of Mars. However, during the descent sequence, an anomaly in the inertial measurement unit (which measures the vehicle’s rotation) triggered the landing sequence too early causing Schiaparelli to crash land. Crash landings are common for Mars – due to the atmosphere being very thin, thus providing little drag and so the spacecraft does not slow down upon entering the atmosphere – with nearly as many landers having crashed as successfully landed.

The lack of liquid water and atmospheric protection means that it is unlikely life exists on Mars today, but missions like ExoMars may uncover a history of previous occupants and discover how we may one day safely become occupants ourselves.

Amy-Rose Collins 

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Featured image courtesy of  driver Photographer via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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