The European Space Agency has launched its first mission to Mars in an effort to seek signs of life on the red planet. The spacecraft took off on its six-month journey Monday atop a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan.
Europe's first foray into Mars exploration is called the Mars Express. It is to enter Martian orbit in December and deploy a small lander by parachute onto the barren surface.
The main objective is to search for water beneath the rocky surface of our nearest planetary neighbor. Scientists believe water once flowed plentifully there and may still exist as underground rivers, pools or permafrost. They say the discovery of water would increase the possibility that life existed or might still exist on Mars.
The Mars Express will circle the planet for one Martian year, or 687 Earth days, and probe for subsurface water with a powerful radar. It will also measure water levels in the atmosphere.
European Space Agency spokeswoman Jocelyne Landeau says the lander below will check the atmosphere for traces of methane produced by living organisms and search for other signs of life in rocks.
"We are going to grind holes into rocks and find out whether you have any form of life somewhere, present life or past life," she said. "Of course, we are not going to find a flower or an animal on Mars. We are going to find probably microbes or bacteria."
The Mars Express mission is similar to a pair of U.S. probes that are to head to the red planet later this month. The American orbiters will also deploy landers by parachute and they, too, will search for water and life-giving environments, like the U.S. Pathfinder mission did six-years ago. The difference is that the U.S. landers will roam on wheels up to one-kilometer in their quest for interesting rocks to study, while the compact European lander will stay in place.
The European and American Mars efforts are cooperative. The American space agency NASA provided some of the money for a U.S.-built instrument on Mars Express. NASA's Mars Odyssey satellite now circling the red planet will relay early data from the European lander back to Earth. Jocelyne Landeau says the European orbiter will perform the same function for the future U.S. rovers.
"It is a European mission. On the other hand, it is also a mission based on cooperation," she said. "We could not do it if we had not had a predecessor. We will be useful as well for our followers, or following missions."
The reason the fleet of European and U.S. spacecraft are journeying to Mars at the same time has to do with the alignment of the two planets' orbits. They are taking advantage of the fact that the planets will be at their closest in August, something that occurs every 26 months.