The Hunt for Life on Mars Is Underway

An artist's rendering of the Schiaparelli spacecraft on Mars (Image courtesy ESA/ATG Medialab)

Need to Know

With three weeks to go before the presidential election, it’s possible you’re considering a move to Canada. But what if we told you it’s possible to go even farther away than the Great White North?

Like Mars far.

The Red Planet has once again become the goal for an international array of tycoons, scientists, and politicians, who have pledged to land humans on our nearest planetary neighbor.

And this week, ExoMars, a joint European-Russian astrobiological venture, hopes to land near Mars’ equator. Launched on March 14, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander are part of a two-phase program to search for signs of life on Mars.

Yesterday, the lander successfully separated from the TGO mothership, headed for a hard landing on the Red Planet.

If all goes according to plan, the Schiaparelli craft will enter the planet’s atmosphere on Wednesday at more than 13,000 mph and land in Mars’ Meridiani Planum region less than six minutes later.

(The module is named after 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Sciaparelli, who mapped Mars’ surface features.)

Once there, the spacecraft will sit on the surface of Mars like a bag of deflated Jiffy Pop, sending humidity, air pressure, and temperature data (among others) to the Trace Gas Orbiter above. Meanwhile, the TGO will hunt for evidence of methane and other gases that could suggest active biological and geological processes.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course. As Gizmodo points out, “Landing on Mars is hard, and neither the ESA nor the Russians have a great track record.”

You can track the progress of the lander at the European Space Agency.

And lest you worry that the American space program is losing sight of our Martian future, only last week President Obama penned an opinion piece for CNN, titled “America will take the giant leap to Mars”.