Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Search for ET? Europe and Russia Join Forces in Mission to Mars

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Search for ET? Europe and Russia Join Forces in Mission to Mars

Article excerpt

Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) are to launch their joint ExoMars mission to the Red Planet Monday, lifting off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The goal of the endeavor is two-fold: to make a detailed analysis of Mars's atmospheric gases, focusing particularly on methane, which could be indicative of life; and to release a test lander, paving the way for another mission a couple of years later.

Success would represent a milestone for both partners, the ESA having made it into Martian orbit only once, in 2003, and the Russians never having done so, despite more than a dozen failed attempts.

"It's incredibly exciting. This is a series of missions that's trying to address one of the fundamental questions in science: is there life anywhere else besides the Earth?" said planetary scientist Peter Grindrod, from Birkbeck University of London, who is funded by the UK Space Agency.

"Finding that life exists elsewhere in the solar system would be a huge discovery, so the evidence has to be strong. As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," he told The Telegraph.

The first part of the spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), will study the gases in Mars's atmosphere, paying particular attention to traces of methane.

On Earth, about 90 percent of methane comes from organisms, so it is reasonable to suggest that any such gas present on Mars could also be produced by biological processes. But it could also originate from geological systems.

The TGO's instruments can analyse other gases present alongside any methane it finds, as well as studying the actual ratio of different kinds of carbon isotopes present in methane, both of which could help determine the methane's origin.

"But even if methane is from life, it doesn't mean life is there today," Hakan Svedhem, the ESA's mission scientist for the TGO, tells Gizmodo. …

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