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Heading for Mars

March 11, 2016

A pair of spacecraft is getting ready to head for Mars, while another probe has been grounded for at least two years.

The launch window opens Monday for ExoMars, a joint mission of the European and Russian space agencies. It’ll consist of two spacecraft that’ll share a ride to the Red Planet. They’ll separate a few days before arrival, with one craft entering orbit while the other heads for the surface.

The Trace Gas Orbiter will sniff the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane and related gases. Methane can be produced by volcanoes and other types of geologic activity. But it also can be produced by living organisms, so traces of it in the atmosphere could hint at the presence of life. In fact, several observations from the ground and by other spacecraft have shown methane on Mars. But so far, scientists haven’t been able to trace its origin.

The lander, Schiaparelli, is designed to test the technologies for future missions. It’ll use parachutes and rockets to touch down, then carry out a few days of scientific observations before its batteries die.

The two craft are scheduled to arrive at Mars in mid-October. A NASA mission was planned to arrive then as well, also after a launch this month. InSight is designed to probe the planet’s interior by listening for Marsquakes. But a problem with its main scientific instrument scuttled the launch. The next launch window won’t open until 2018 — the next chance for a trip to Mars.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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