Case study


Europe's mission to Mars.


ESA's ExoMars Rover. Credit: ESA.

ExoMars consists of two missions that fall under the European Space Agency’s European Exploration Programme (E3P). The missions will deliver important science whilst developing technologies that will lay the foundations for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The missions are in collaboration with Roscosmos.

The mission in brief:

  • Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) which arrived at Mars 19th October 2016 and started scientific operations in April 2018
  • A rover due for launch in July 2020 and will land on Mars 19 March 2021 at Oxia Planum
  • The UK main involvement is the development of the rover vehicle, software and the design of the parachute sub-system. UK scientists are involved in two scientific instruments on the rover and one on the TGO.

ExoMars 2016

The 2016 mission TGO carries scientific instruments to detect and study atmospheric trace gases, such as methane. On arrival of the rover in 2021, the orbiter will relay data from the rover back to Earth.

ExoMars 2020

The main aims of ExoMars is to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that may have once, and perhaps could still, support life. It will also assist in preparing for other robotic missions, including a Mars Sample Return mission, and possible future human exploration. Data from the mission will also provide invaluable input for broader studies of martian geochemistry, environmental science and exobiology - the search for evidence of life on other planets.

As the first European rover to traverse the surface of Mars it will uniquely drill down to two metres into the martian surface allowing the rover’s scientific instruments to sample and analyse the soil, determine its mineral content and composition, and search for evidence of whether past environments could once have harboured life. The rover will roam around the Martian surface by using electrical power generated from its solar arrays. The rover’s software will have a degree of ‘intelligence’ and autonomy to make certain decisions on the ground and will navigate using optical sensors.

The UK is the second largest contributor to the ExoMars mission with a contribution of €287 million.

Mission facts

The 2016 mission concentrates on orbital science observations, particularly those of the methane in Mars’ atmosphere, first detected by ESA’s Mars Express mission in 2003. The presence of methane in the martian atmosphere could suggest evidence for possible biological or geological activity.

The 2020 rover’s payload will be devoted to geology, geochemistry and exobiology. It will search Mars’ surface for evidence of environments that may once have supported life, and may even still do so today.

The Rover Operations Control Centre (ROCC) will be located in Turin, Italy and the mission control will be at the European Space Agency Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

The lead builder of the rover is UK Airbus Defense and Space.

Roscosmos will provide a Proton launcher for both missions and the decent module for the 2020 mission.

UK involvement

Airbus Defence and Space is the lead builder of the ExoMars rover and SCISYS UK Ltd has been supporting the development of the rover on-board software and its autonomous operations. There is considerable UK involvement from a number of academic institutions with the on-board rover instruments:

PanCam (the panoramic camera system on the rover) is UK-led with scientists from University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) working with the University of Aberystwyth, Birkbeck College and the University of Leicester. PanCam will provide imagery of Mars’ surface that will allow reconstruction by 3-D digital terrain mapping. It will also provide context for drill sampling and rover instrumentation. The wide-angle cameras will provide stereo information while the high-resolution camera will enable close-up images of martian structures and features.

The University of Leicester, Bradford University and STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, are key players in the development of the CCD camera on the Raman Laser Spectrometer (Raman LIBS) which can detect the presence of chemical compounds including minerals and also specific types of “biomarkers” – chemicals indicative of past or present life – that are produced by primitive micro-organisms to enable them to adapt to life in extreme environments. Such organisms are well-known on Earth and probably represent the most likely form of life that could have existed on Mars.

The UK has involvement on the NOMAD instrument on board the 2016 TGO through the Open University.

Published 3 July 2014
Last updated 5 December 2018 + show all updates
  1. Information updated.

  2. Page content updated.

  3. First published.