Mars continues to be our next big goal in space exploration, as the European Space Agency and Russia launch one mission and NASA reschedules another.
Mars has been in the news a lot lately, with one astronaut being stranded and rescued, a cultural icon getting a one-way ticket, reports that a trip to the Red Planet could conceivably be made in three days, and the revelation that water exists there.
Granted, only those last two really apply, but the fact is that Mars has captured our attention in a big way, both in fact and fiction. Adding to the fact side is that the European Space Agency and Roscosmos have launched the ExoMars space mission today from Kazakhstan. The two-stage mission has the probe arriving at Mars in October to analyze methane and other gases in the atmosphere. Another launch in 2018 will drop a lander on the planet in 2018.
The probe's Trace Gas Orbiter is designed to study where the various gases in the Martian atmosphere are coming from. Paolo Ferri, ESA's head of mission operations, said that methane is created by biological or geological activity and breaks down within a relatively short period of time once it reaches the atmosphere. "Relatively short" in cosmic time, of course.
"It cannot be older than 400 years. That means there has been either biological or geological activity in this timeframe," he said. "Four hundred years is nothing. If there is methane it means there is basically a process going on now."
Scientists have been hoping to find life on the red planet for some time, but as yet, none has been found. The discovery of water does add to the intrigue. But what if this probe and the subsequent lander mission finds life? Would we still attempt to send humans to Mars?
"Weirdly, if we find life on Mars it actually really begs the question if we should go at all with human beings because of that idea of planetary protection," said Mark McCaughrean, senior science adviser at ESA. "We would take with us bugs, and if now those bugs meet Martian bugs, that could be a disaster."
And as one mission starts, another is rescheduled. NASA had planned to launch its InSight mission - short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - this month, but a problem with the craft's seismometer found in December could not be fixed in time. After some consideration, NASA decided to put the mission, which will also drop a lander on Mars, back on the calendar for 2018.
InSight is a part of NASA's Discovery Program, in which scientists compete for approval of relatively low-cost planetary missions. In this case, low cost means about $675 million, of which $525 million has already been spent. The added cost of the delay has yet to be factored in.