The European Space Agency, in partnership with Russia's federal space agency, is preparing to launch a robotic mission to Mars on March 14.
The mission of Exobiology on Mars, or "ExoMars," is to investigate whether life on Mars exists and to test technologies that will allow for a sample return mission — bringing Martian material back to Earth for further study — in the 2020s.
The two-phase ExoMars program is the ESA's second mission to the red planet following the 2003 Mars Express program. The second phase of ExoMars will occur in 2018 when the ESA plans to land a drill-equipped rover on Mars.
ExoMars' first phase is comprised of two pieces of key technology, the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. The Trace Gas Orbiter will observe the atmosphere of the planet while Schiaparelli will attempt to land on Mars' surface.
Both modules will launch on a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It will take the payload seven months to travel to the red planet.
Three days before reaching Mars, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will deploy the Schiaparelli lander. While Schiaparelli is en route to the surface, the orbiter will relay information from the lander back to Earth. After the lander's deployment, the Trace Gas Orbiter will alter its trajectory and eventually orbit 250 miles above the planet. There it will perform tests, such as searching for gases of "biological importance," gases which could signal evidence of Martian life, according to the ESA. Chief among these gases is methane.
The orbiter will also look for signs of ice on the planet. This information could influence where future rovers will land and investigate. The Trace Gas Orbiter will also serve as a communications relay device for the 2018 mission. It's scheduled to remain in commission until December 2022.
The other half of the 2016 ExoMars mission has a shorter lifespan but is still of great importance to our understanding of Mars. The Schiaparelli module's descent and successful positioning on Mars will provide scientists with critical information about landing spacecraft on the planet.
However, understanding the mechanics of landing is not the only goal of the module. According to the ESA:
"Although designed to demonstrate entry, descent and landing technologies, Schiaparelli also offers limited, but useful, science capabilities. It will deliver a science package that will operate on the surface of Mars for a short duration after landing, planned to last approximately 2-4 sols (Martian days)."
The science payload contains instruments that can test for a variety of environmental factors such as Martian humidity and how dust storms form.
The primary landing site for Schiaparelli is the Meridiani Planum, a location chosen because of its low elevation, which translates to a thicker atmosphere. The thicker atmosphere will aid Schiaparelli's heatshield in slowing the module's descent. The Meridiani Planum is known to be rich in hematite, which might indicate evidence of Martian water, as hematite on Earth is usually a sign of the presence of H2O. If the initial launch proceeds as scheduled, Schiaparelli is scheduled to land on Mars on Oct. 19.
Should the March 14 launch date not work out, ExoMars has a launch window that will remain open through March 25.
This is an exciting next step on the journey to Mars. ESA will host a livestream of the launch along with regular updates on the mission website if you want to follow the progress of the mission.