On March 14, the European Space Agency along with Russia’s space agency will launch the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to Mars. The liftoff will take place at the Baikonur cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.
According to official reports, the probe is designed to map and analyze the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The mission is especially interested in methane and other elements that make up less than 1% of the Martian atmosphere: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and water vapor.
Scientists are puzzled that methane is so present on Mars. The gas is usually rare in nature, making it all the way more fascinating that it was found on a lifeless planet.
Researchers believe that methane should be easily destroyed by the extreme weather on Mars. But recent readings suggest that methane levels are constant and occasionally display some spikes.
So, scientists theorize that there must be a source that keeps replenishing methane on the remote planet. Some planetary scientists believe that the most likely source is geological.
There are two theories: methane could be released in the wake of chemical interactions between specific subsurface rocks and water; or methane could be trapped in ice for millennia and get released into atmosphere during sporadic melting events.
Yet, other scientists hope that the source could be biological just like on Earth. On our planet, the gas comes mostly from living organisms, so it could be a possibility for Mars’ methane to be generated by bacterial life forms.
Dr Jorge Vago, ESA head of the project at ExoMars mission, explained that regardless of the type of source, methane suggests that there must be subsurface liquid water on the planet, which makes Mars slightly more active than scientists had envisioned.
The probe is equipped with two instruments, ACS and NOMAD, that can make a detailed map of methane concentrations both in atmosphere and at ground level.
Plus, there’s a scientific camera dubbed CaSSIS that can seek geological sources of methane, while a forth tool called FREND can detect hydrogen in the crust’s upper layer, which can be a sign that hydrated minerals and water are close by.
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is slated for launch at 15:31 local time. It will be coupled to a Proton rocket that will carry it to space and place it on a trajectory to Mars. The journey to space would last about 10 hours, while the trip to Mars would take seven months.
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