In March of 2016 the European Space Agency - in collaboration with Roscosmos - launched The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter sending it on its way to the mysterious red planet that orbits our Sun, Mars.
Its mission? To look for signs of life on the Red Giant that has held the interest of astronomers for centuries since first being discovered in the 17th century by Galileo Galilei.
ESA’s ExoMars has now lowered itself into a planet-hugging orbit and is about ready to begin sniffing the Red Planet for methane.
“The end of this effort came at 17:20 GMT on 20 February, when the craft fired its thrusters for about 16 minutes to raise the closest approach to the surface to about 200 km, well out of the atmosphere. This effectively ended the aerobraking campaign, leaving it in an orbit of about 1050 x 200 km.
Aerobraking around an alien planet that is, typically, 225 million km away is an incredibly delicate undertaking. The thin upper atmosphere provides only gentle deceleration – at most some 17 mm/s each second.”
The craft will analyze trace gases specifically looking for methane. Methanogenesis or biomethanation is the formation of methane by microbes known as methanogens.
Organisms capable of producing methane have been identified only from the domain Archaea, a group phylogenetically distinct from both eukaryotes and bacteria, although many live in close association with anaerobic bacteria.
Evidence of methane in the atmosphere could be an indication of living microorganisms on the Red Planet.
It will also look for water-ice hidden just below the surface, which along with potential trace gas sources could guide the choice for future mission landing sites.
We may not find little grey guys walking around the surface but the discovery of organisms, even simple ones, on an alien world help to support popular theories of life evolving on outside of our solar system.