UK in mission to find life on Mars as European Space Agency probe set to leave Earth

Exomars 2016 is the UK's first mission to the Red Planet since the failed Beagle 2 programme in 2003

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The Independent Online

The UK is set to join the European Space Agency in a mission to discover whether life exists on Mars.

It is the country’s first attempt to visit the Red Planet since the failed 2003 Beagle 2 mission, which lost contact with ground staff and was only spotted more than a decade later when Nasa cameras picked out its shape on the surface of Mars in 2015.

In a joint project between the ESA and Russian space agency Roscosmos, the Exomars 2016 orbiter and probe are set to leave earth on 14 March from Kazakhstan and are intended to arrive on the Red Planet in October 2016, if all goes to plan.

A trace gas orbiter and a landing module known as Schiaparelli will be launched on a rocket and fly to Mars as one, with Schiaparelli being fired from the orbiter towards the red planet three days before reaching the planet’s atmosphere.

Exomars 2016 trace gas orbiter and Schiaparelli

It will then travel towards the planet at 12,000km/h, using a parachute to slow itself down before its thruster allows it to brake and allow it to land on the surface of Mars.

The mission will then carry out tests on the surface of the planet to attempt to trace the origin of important gases, which scientists believe could indicate the presence of life.

It is believed to be one of the few places where life could be detected, with methane found in small quantities on the geologically-active planet, an important discovery as the gas is produced in most cases by living organisms and disappears on the planet after several hundred years.

The scientific mission is expected to begin in December 2017 and will run for five years, ESA estimated.  

The 2016 mission will be followed up with the launch of a second mission, Exomars 2018, which will carry a European rover capable of moving across the surface and drilling down into the face of the planet, according to the ESA, collecting samples which will then be analysed.