News story

Mars mission heralds start of UK’s search for life on red planet

The mission will see a UK-designed rover launched to the surface of the red planet in 2018.

Trace Gas Orbiter
Artist's impression of ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. Credit: ESA.

The first half of an international Mars mission is underway, following the liftoff of ExoMars 2016.

Launched today from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, ExoMars 2016 precedes the 2018 rover mission and will search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes on Mars. Scheduled to arrive at the red planet in October 2016, it will also deploy a descent and landing demonstrator module and test key technologies in preparation for subsequent missions to the planet.

UK involvement in the 2016 mission is through Dr Manish Patel at the Open University who is co-Principal Investigator for the NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery) instrument on board the probe. Dr Patel and his team worked specifically on UVIS, a miniature ultraviolet spectrometer whose main objective is to detect and quantify trace gas concentrations but also to study aerosols present in the Martian atmosphere.

Sue Horne, Head of Exploration at the UK Space Agency, said:

ExoMars is a big deal for the UK. We’re contributing to the Trace Gas Orbiter and leading on the development of a rover that will search for signs of past and present life on Mars. The launch of ExoMars 2016 is an exciting first step.

The UK is the second largest contributor to the ExoMars mission with a contribution of €205 million through the European Space Agency. This contribution has secured the future of this high-impact space programme and given the UK the overall leadership of the rover module whose complete design, including the final integration and testing, will be done in the UK.

The main aim of the ExoMars rover mission is to examine the geological environment on Mars and search for evidence of environments that may have once, and perhaps could still, support life. 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 its 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.

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 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.

Published 14 March 2016