Europe’s first Mars mission prepares to land
With luck, the ExoMars spacecrafts will start looking for life on Mars today. The mission is set to take decades and cost £1.16bn. Can such a risky project justify such huge expense?
Engineers at the European Space Agency (ESA) are biting their nails. At around 15:42 (BST), their Schiaparelli lander is due to touch down on Mars. Meanwhile, their Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) should settle into the planet’s orbit. But this is space, where things often go wrong.
This moment has been a long time coming. ExoMars, as the two missions are collectively known, was conceived by the ESA in 2001 with the ultimate goal of putting humans on Mars. NASA jumped on board in 2009, before pulling out for budgetary reasons. The ESA then teamed up with Russia; the two finally launched the lander and orbiter in March.
ExoMars is not charting new territory. Spacecrafts have been visiting the red planet since 1965, when NASA’s Mariner 4 snapped the first ever photos of its surface. Over the decades, American and Russian missions have turned up a wealth of data on Mars’s climate and geology.
But the ESA’s mission will set new milestones. Firstly, it will be Europe’s first successful landing on the planet. Secondly, it will give unprecedented insight into the possibility of life on Mars.
The TGO is equipped to analyse methane in the planet’s atmosphere, and conclude whether it is produced by geological or biological processes. The latter would point to the presence of organisms, either currently or in the past.
As Mars has an inhospitable atmosphere, scientists believe that any life on the planet is likely to exist underground. Schiaparelli’s main job, therefore, is to test landing technology, paving the way for the arrival in 2020 of a rover with a 2m drill.
If all goes to plan, scientists will be popping corks this afternoon. But not everyone will celebrate. The ESA, an alliance of 22 national governments, is estimating the cost of ExoMars at £1.16bn. Given the project’s setbacks to date, this figure could yet increase.
By nature, space exploration is risky, speculative and costly. Since its earliest days, some have questioned whether it is an appropriate use of public money…
Waste of space
The world is full of pressing issues, say some. If billions more were invested in, say, healthcare or education, we would see immediate and concrete results. The same cannot be said of space exploration. Take Mars: two thirds of missions to the planet have ended in failure. This field is nothing more than a playground for self-involved scientists.
That is simply not true, reply others. The technology developed for space projects can improve lives too: examples include GPS and solar panels. More than that, space exploration satisfies our thirst for discovery, and gives us a fresh perspective on our planet. It may look to the cosmos, but humans are its beneficiaries.
- If humans became able to live on Mars, would you move there? Why (not)?
- Should space exploration be left to the private sector?
- Imagine you met a Martian who could speak English. Come up with five questions that you would ask.
- Your country’s government has entrusted you with £1.16bn of public money. What will you spend it on? Write a letter to the government, describing and justifying your budget.
Some People Say...
“Life on Earth must be about more than just solving problems.”Elon Musk
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Q & A
- What are the odds of life on Mars?
- The planet has long intrigued scientists due to its similarity to Earth. It is believed to have once hosted water, and its atmosphere contains methane, which is sometimes produced by bacteria. If life does exist, it is of the order of microbes.
- What if we find something?
- It could teach us about the conditions necessary for life processes. The discovery of the first life outside Earth would have huge philosophical implications. And it would boost hopes of human colonies on Mars…
- What comes after ExoMars?
- The ESA is planning follow-up missions with the ultimate goal of putting humans on the planet. President Obama has pledged the USA to do this by 2030. Meanwhile, the launch of the James Webb Telescope in 2018 will aid our search for alien life elsewhere.
- European Space Agency
- The organisation was set up in 1975. It is independent of the European Union.
- The ‘exo’ refers to ‘exobiology’: the study of the possibility of life beyond Earth.
- The month’s name comes from Mars, the Roman god of war, who also gave his name to the planet!
- Successful landing
- In 2003, the ESA sent the Beagle 2 spacecraft to search for traces of life on Mars. It lost contact with Earth on its descent, but was found again in 2015. Though intact, it had not fully deployed its toolkit.
- The gas was first detected on Mars in 2003. On Earth, most methane is produced biologically.
- Organisms that live in such extreme conditions are known as ‘extremeophiles’.
- 2m drill
- Previous drills on the planet have measured a few centimetres at most.
- The figure given by the ESA, €1.3bn, does not include the Russian contribution, which has not been made public.
- Two thirds
- According to the National Geographic. This high rate of failure has led to talk of a ‘Mars Curse’.