If you’ve been following Mars, the groundbreaking drama/documentary hybrid currently airing on the National Geographic Channel, you may have seen an engaging episode, titled “Pressure Drop,” in which the fictional Mars landing crew races against the clock to find a suitable location to set up base camp.

The same episode includes documentary scenes of the launch of the first ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission to the Red Planet, which took place in March of this year. By October, the spacecraft had arrived in orbit.

The ExoMars spacecraft approaching Mars. (Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

ExoMars has a number of very ambitious objectives. It seeks to discover whether Mars had—or has—any traces of life, from microbes on up. It also serves as an investigative and training precursor to an eventual crewed mission to the planet.

“ExoMars is the next step to building up the knowledge for that future manned mission.”—Dr. Nicholas Thomas, Principal Investigator, ExoMars, European Space Agency

ExoMars 2016: Schiaparelli Lander

October 16, 2016, was a day of great anticipation for the ExoMars mission team, composed of members of the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. That was the day the lander, called Schiaparelli, descended from the ExoMars orbiter toward the surface of Mars.

The Schiaparelli lander separates from the ExoMars spacecraft.

Three days later, the lander entered Mars’s atmosphere. If all went as planned, Schiaparelli would make a safe landing after about six minutes. An uninterrupted stream of signals indicated it was working properly right up to the last minute of the probe’s descent, but then it suddenly went silent.

Schiaparelli’s demise was confirmed several days later when photos of its crash site were transmitted from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Despite its loss, however, the data it collected will be useful in designing the next Mars landing attempt in four years.

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and the Search for Methane

While the crash of Schiaparelli was disappointing, it was not a calamity for the overall ExoMars mission. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will continue to circle Mars in order to make a detailed examination of the gaseous components of the Martian atmosphere. One of the orbiter’s primary purposes is to test for traces of methane. If the gas is found, it could be the product of biological processes (currently or in the distant past). Or not.

Mars terrain, taken by ExoMars. (Image credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE)

Once methane sources are mapped, further scientific inquiry – in 2020 or later – will determine whether it is biological in origin. The presence of methane would not be, in and of itself, conclusive, as it could simply be the result of geological processes such as volcanoes or other terrain-shaking phenomena. But it would be an intriguing indicator.

To carry out the orbiter’s multifaceted mission, four separate instruments are on board:

  • NOMAD – Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery, a spectrometer that detects infrared, ultraviolet, and visible light.
  • ACS – Atmospheric Chemistry Suite, a second spectrometer that detects near infrared, mid infrared, and thermal infrared light.
  • CASSIS – Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System, to create 3D color images of the surface of Mars.
  • FREND – Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector, a device that will map deposits of water ice on or near the surface of the Martian terrain. As in the Mars television series, the first crew of astronauts to arrive on the planet will need to be located in the vicinity of a source of hydrogen such as would be found in water ice.
Mars terrain, photographed by ExoMars spacecraft. (Image credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE)

ExoMars 2020 and Beyond

The current first phase of the ExoMars mission will provide researchers with a wealth of information about the Martian atmosphere, but it’s just the start of a much longer-range plan. Now that the first phase is well under way, the ExoMars team is preparing for the next step. The second phase, scheduled for 2020, will include a more sophisticated landing unit as well as a Mars rover to explore the Martian terrain.

When both phases of the mission are active, the stage will be set for the most exciting part: landing space travelers on the surface of Mars. What happens after that will be limited only by imagination, innovation, and persistence.