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Exomars: searching for life on mars

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The first spacecraft for the world’s next big mission to Mars is almost complete. At Thales Alenia Space in France, everyone is working to the launch deadline early next year. Once ExoMars 2016 arrives at Mars, it will release a capsule - aerodynamically shaped for a controlled entry into the Martian atmosphere and containing a robotic lander. The rest of the spacecraft will go into orbit around Mars.



The ExoMars 2016 orbiter, a joint mission between ESA and Roscosmos, will send back crucial information about the atmosphere, sniffing it for methane and clues for the possible presence of life. The lander’s findings will help future lander missions. Then, in 2018, the second part of the ExoMars mission will get underway – including a rover with a drill.


[INSET CLIP: Jorge VAGO, ExoMars Project Scientist, ESA]

"ExoMars 2018 is really opening a new chapter in Mars exploration. For the first time we will address the third dimension, which is depth. All missions up to now have only dug the top 5cms of the surface. We will go down to two metres. This is very important, because it is in the subsurface, and at depth, that we have the best chance of finding evidence for the possible past presence of life on Mars."



The search for life on Mars involves a team from ESA and Roscosmos. But placing a robotic lander on the planet’s surface, as many missions have discovered, is not easy.



The chosen site for the rover will be both safe for landing and scientifically interesting.


[INSET CLIP: Pietro BAGLIONI, ExoMars Rover Manager, ESA]

"We see here the prototype of the rover going down the ramp. This is more or less how it will happen in real on Mars."



This mast is fixed. In the ExoMars rover there will be a deployable mast. On the top there will be navigation cameras used for the autonomous navigation of the machine, and also panoramic camera, scientific instruments, wide angle cameras and high resolution cameras, that will be used for the localisation of the targets on Mars, where we want to go to make our drilling and our investigation.”



The rover will study rocks and look for places below the surface where water-related minerals were once deposited. It will then drill down to two metres, searching for traces of organic molecules that could provide clues to the past presence of organisms.


[INSET CLIP Jorge VAGO, ExoMars Project Scientist, ESA]

"The microbes themselves would be too small to see, there are sizes in the range of one to a few microns, so you would need a big fat microscope to be able to see them, something we don’t have on our mission. But colonies of organisms can affect the deposition of rocks, and that we will be able to see. The other type of biosignature is organic molecules, and here you have to think of them as the Lego bricks of cells."



The ExoMars rover could also spot any present day life on Mars, hidden beneath the surface away from harmful radiation. Until then, we can only wonder if there is life on Mars or not?


[INSET CLIP Pietro Baglioni, ExoMars Rover Manager, ESA]

"It's of course a 100 million dollar question. I am convinced that there has been life on Mars."



By the end of the decade, ExoMars could know for sure.

10:03:58 B-roll

Spacecraft and rover animation

Spacecraft leaving the Earth and heading towards Mars. The release of the lander towards the Martian surface, descent through the atmosphere, deployment of parachute and controlled landing on the surface. The rover deploys its solar planels and instruments including sample analysis. Animation of the surface. The rover moves on the surface and uses its drill. The orbiter is shown orbiting Mars. Courtesy of Thales Alenia Space and Master Programmes


Spacecraft in clean room

ExoMars in a clean room at Thales Alenia Space in France.


Mars rover shots

Prototype ExoMars rover shots at the ExoMars rover test yard in ESTEC, the Netherlands. Also includes set up shots with a rover operator and Pietro Baglioni, ExoMars Rover Manager, ESA


Pietro Baglioni interview (English)

ExoMars Rover Manager, ESA

The real ExoMars rover is much bigger than this one. It’s a 310 kilogramme machine, so I would say it’s a double size, and will contain a big laboratory inside where there will be an ultra clean volume where we will process the samples acquired with the drill on the terrain, and we will make the scientific analysis.”
It’s important to get to access this lower part of this first layer of the surface. To do that we have a multi-rod system, a drill with a multi-rod system, that is capable to go down to two metres, take a sample, deliver the sample to the laboratory that we have inside the rover. And then, this is an additional challenge, a technology objective of the mission actually, we need to be able to process this sample, meaning to crush this sample, to get a certain amount of powder, and then distribute and dose this powder to allow the analysis of this material with a number of scientific instrumentation that are extremely sensitive and sophisticated and they will be able to tell us the geochemical composition of the terrain.”

Jorge Vago interview (English)

ExoMars Project Scientist, ESA

We want to look for biosignatures in the form of organic molecules from very early in the history of mars. Let’s say 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. So ionising radiation, which acts as a million little knives cutting away at your molecules, penetrates into the Martian subsurface. Our results show that in order to be able to look at biosignatures that have been in the subsurface for a very long time, we need to go in the order of 1.5 up to 2 metres in depth. We know that 3.5, 4 billion years ago, there was a lot of water on the Martian surface, and this is the time that is of most interest regarding a possible origin of life on Mars.”
10:13:39 END of b-roll

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