The craft, part of the European-Russian ExoMars program, is to
lift off from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan on board a Proton
rocket at 5:31 A.M. EDT (0931 GMT) on Monday, starting a seven-month
journey through space.
It will carry an atmospheric probe that will study trace gases, such
as methane, around Mars as well as a lander that will test
technologies needed for a rover due to follow in 2018.
U.S. space agency NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in late 2014 found
spurts of methane gas in the planet's atmosphere, a chemical that on
Earth is strongly tied to life.
Scientists believe the methane could stem from micro-organisms,
called methanogenes, that either became extinct millions of years
ago and left gas frozen below the planet's surface, or that some
methane-producing organisms still survive.
"Proving that life exists or has existed on Mars would show that
Earth is not unique in terms of having life on it," Rolf de Groot,
head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Robotic Exploration
Coordination Office, told Reuters.
"That would make it much more likely that there are other places in
the universe that also have life," he added.
Another explanation for the methane in Mars's atmosphere could be
that it is produced by geological phenomena, like the oxidation of
The second part of the ExoMars mission in 2018 will deliver a
European rover to the surface of Mars. It will be the first with the
ability to both move across the planet's surface and drill into the
ground to collect and analyze samples.
"The radiation from space
destroys all the biological material. If you go two meters into the
ground you may be able to find places that were protected (from
radiation)," de Groot said.
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Landing on Mars is a notoriously difficult task that has bedevilled
nearly all of Russia's previous efforts and has given NASA trouble
as well. The United States currently has two operational rovers on
Mars, Curiosity and Opportunity.
The ExoMars 2016 mission is led by ESA, with Russia's Roscosmos
supplying the launcher and two of the four scientific instruments on
the trace gas orbiter. The prime contractor is Thales Alenia Space,
a joint venture between Thales and Finmeccanica.
The cost of the ExoMars mission to ESA, including the second part
due in 2018, is expected to be about 1.3 billion euros ($1.4
billion). Russia's contribution comes on top of that.
In 2018, NASA also plans to launch a Mars spacecraft, a satellite
known as InSight and designed to study the deep interior of Mars,
the U.S. agency said this week.
($1 = 0.9060 euros)
(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Dominic Evans)
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