The long-awaited ExoMars expedition will depart next week on March 14th from Baikonur, Kazakhstan with the aim of finding an answer to one of the biggest unresolved scientific questions of our time: is there life on Mars?
Jorge Vago, an Argentine engineer, forms part of the European Space Agency (ESA) team heading the ExoMars mission alongside the Russian agency Roscosmos. The expedition, which will last six years in total, begins with the launch of a proton rocket next week.
“I believe that it will be difficult to answer the question of life on Mars in just one mission,” affirmed Vago, speaking to Clarín. “My realistic objective is to establish the origin of the gas methane in the atmosphere.” On Earth, 90 percent of methane is of biological origins, which thereby proving the decomposition of organic matter; its detection on the Red Planet could prove the existence of micro-organic life.
The rocket will travel the 77 million kilometers from Earth to search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could demonstrate active biological processes are occurring on Mars. A small robot, Schiaparelli, named after the Italian astronomer who mapped the Red Planet in the 19th century, will be released from the rocket to make a landing. The 600 kilogram machine will be the largest in history to land on Mars. From there, Schiaparelli will explore the surface using cameras and taking gas samples, subsequently relaying the results of its scientific analysis back to the ExoMars Orbiter. ESA hopes that Schiaparelli’s mission will pave the way for a planned 2018 expedition, which will use a separate exploration vehicle and a drill mechanism that will be able to remove samples from two meters underground Mars’ surface.
Speaking in an interview published on the ESA website, Vago explained how he is “one of the founders of the generation of ExoMars.” Born in 1962, Vago spent a large part of his childhood in Rosario. He graduated as an electrical engineer from the Buenos Aires Institutes of Technology and then traveled to the United States to complete a masters in Applied Physics and a PhD in Planetary Physics at Cornell University. Vago has worked for the ESA since 1992 and on the ExoMars mission for the last 10 years.
Within the last 10 years, a number of expeditions have been successful in reaching Mars, however over the years, numerous attempts have failed upon entering the planet’s atmosphere. In January, it was reported that the ExoMars 2018 mission might be delayed due to funding problems, as the ESA director appealed to European-Russian members for funding. In total the project is expected to cost over US $1.7 billion.
If the ExoMars expedition succeeds in finding traces of organic material, which, according to Vago, have existed on Mars for 4 billion years, “this will have been more of less the same date as when life first appeared on Earth.”