ExoMars: Revealing Mars's ancient past
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
Mission status: Active
Launch window: to
Mission status: Preparing for launch
The ESA's ExoMars program is a two-part Mars exploration mission carried out in collaboration with Roscosmos.
- In , the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) arrived at Mars to study the atmosphere of the red planet, accompanied by an entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module known as Schiaparelli.
- The second mission, the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin, will launch in . Aided by a Russian surface platform, the rover will land on Mars about nine months later. It will include a drill and instruments designed for biological and chemical research.
The main scientific objective of the ExoMars program is to establish whether life ever existed on Mars. However, ExoMars and also aim to demonstrate key abilities that will help pave the way for future Mars missions:
- Entry, descent, and landing techniques
- The ability of the rover to travel several kilometres
- Access to a layer of Martian soil below the surface
- Sample acquisition and analysis
Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult. In fact, only about half of all attempts to land on Mars have been successful. In , the Schiaparelli module crashed on the Martian surface. Data from the anomaly was investigated, and lessons learned will be applied to future missions.
The thinness of the Martian atmosphere means that an entry, descent, and landing sequence must happen quickly and with extreme precision. When the ExoMars descent module enters the Martian atmosphere, it will be travelling at about 20,000 km/h. Its thermal shield and parachute system will slow the vehicle down, and rocket engines will fire to land the rover gently on the surface.
Canada's role in the mission
Thanks to a cooperation agreement between Canada and ESA, Canadian companies were able to bid on contracts for the ExoMars missions:
- The TGO carries a communication antenna subsystem built by the Canadian company MDA.
- The ExoMars rover will roam the red planet using a chassis and electronics built by MDA, and navigation cameras built by another Canadian company, the Neptec Design Group (now part of MDA).
The Canadian Space Agency is also funding two Canadian scientists taking part in the Orbiter mission:
- Dr. Livio Tornabene (Western University) is a Canadian Co-Investigator on the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) instrument on the TGO.
- Dr. Ed Cloutis (University of Winnipeg) is a Canadian Co-Investigator on the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery (NOMAD) instrument, investigating the composition of dust in the Martian atmosphere.
Together, the ExoMars and missions will give scientists a better understanding of the Martian atmosphere, provide clues as to whether life ever existed on Mars, and help test technologies for a future possible Mars sample-return mission.
Measuring the makeup of the Martian atmosphere is a critical part of the search for life on the red planet. Methane gas can be formed on Earth through geological processes (like volcanoes) or biological ones, as a by-product of life.
Within Mars's thin atmosphere, methane breaks down easily due to ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Thanks to spacecraft like the TGO, researchers are tracking levels of methane and other trace gases, and taking a closer look at the cycle of formation and breakdown of methane in the Martian atmosphere. These careful measurements will help pinpoint its source – ultimately shedding light on the possibility of recent, microscopic life on Mars.
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