In the early morning hours of March 14 (Monday), two soon-to-be Martian visitors will begin their journey to the red planet. The European Space Agency and Roscosmos are launching the first part of the ExoMars mission from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Launch is scheduled for 09:31 UTC, or 4:31 am EST. Live coverage starts an hour before launch.

ExoMars rocket on launch pad

ExoMars is a two-phase mission. The ExoMars mission is split into two phases. On Monday, the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli will begin their journey to Mars. When the next Mars launch window opens, in 2018, a European rover and Russian surface platform will be launched to Mars.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will study Mars’ atmosphere. The orbiter’s main objective? To map out trace gases, particularly hydrocarbons (like methane) and sulfur. Any detections could hint at biological or geological processes happening now or in Mars’ past. If the specific gases are detected, the Orbiter will conduct a much more in-depth study including geographical (where exactly in the atmosphere it is located) and seasonal (does the amount of gas change over time) mapping.

The Orbiter will study Mars’ subsurface. Another objective for the Orbiter is mapping the subsurface hydrogen on Mars to a depth of one meter (3.2 feet). Scientists expect the resolution of this map to be ten times better than what they currently have.

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

It will also relay data from the second phase rover. The Trace Gas Orbiter will also act as a relay for the European rover heading to Mars in 2018. It will act in this role until the scheduled end of the ExoMars program in 2022.

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Schiaparelli will act as a demonstration for the 2018 rover. Europe doesn’t have a good track record when it comes getting to Mars. In 2003, the ESA placed the Mars Express mission in orbit around the planet. A companion lander was sent to the surface but never established contact.

The ESA hopes Schiaparelli changes that. The lander will give Europe the technology (and much-needed experience) for successfully landing on the surface of Mars. If Schiaparelli makes it to the surface, it won’t stay powered long. This lander is more of a demonstration of the technology used in the 2018 rover. A set of instruments will be packed in to perform limited surface science, but the ESA isn’t expecting much.

Schiaparelli during testing

Schiaparelli during testing.

The ESA should know if Schiaparelli successfully landed on Mars on October 19. Preliminary science operations are scheduled to take place in the four days following the landing.

The 2018 rover. Two pieces of equipment will be delivered in 2018. A European rover and a Russian surface platform. The ExoMars rover is a revolutionary piece of tech. It will be the first time a mission will be able to travel across the Martian surface while also gathering samples from beneath the surface. Samples from as far as two meters beneath the surface will be gathered and analyzed.

Instruments onboard the rover will analyze each sample and determine their physical and chemical properties. ESA scientists hope to find organic substances and believe subsurface samples are their best shot at finding them. Radiation and sunlight at the surface don’t play too nice with sensitive compounds.

ExoMars rover 2018

Artist concept of 2018 rover.

The ExoMars Rover can work without communication. Because communications are limited to once or twice per Martian day, scientists have designed to rover to be “highly autonomous.” Using images captured by the cameras on the rover, scientists will figure out target destinations. It’s then up to the rover to safely travel to them. A combination of collision avoidance cameras and digital maps should get the rover to where it needs to go without issue.

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The Russian surface platform conduct long-term climate monitoring. The surface platform will be stuck at the landing site. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t do science. It’s primary science objectives will be focused on long-term climate monitoring and atmospheric study.

The search for signs of life on Mars continues. The ESA and Roscosmos join the search for evidence of life in Mars’ past. While NASA rovers have been cruising around the desolate surface for years, they’ve still only covered a tiny portion of the red planet’s surface.

The ExoMars mission officially kicks off on Monday with a Mars rendezvous coming in seven months. Here’s to the ESA and Roscosmos a successful launch and a successful mission to Mars.

Image credits: ESA

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