New mission searches for life on Mars The Proton-M rocket booster blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Monday, March 14, 2016. The Russian rocket carries an orbiter for measuring atmospheric gases of Mars and a Mars lander of the 'ExoMars 2016' mission. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
New mission searches for life on Mars
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Europe and Russia have launched a joint mission to explore the atmosphere of Mars and hunt for signs of life on the red planet.
 
The unmanned ExoMars probe is a collaboration between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos. It took off March 14 aboard a Russian rocket and is expected to reach Mars in October.
 
The probe's Trace Gas Orbiter will analyze methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere to determine where they are coming from, said Paolo Ferri, ESA's head of mission operations.
 
Methane is created by biological or geological activity and breaks down within a relatively short period of time once it reaches the atmosphere.
 
"It cannot be older than 400 years. That means there has been either biological or geological activity in this timeframe," said Ferri. "Four hundred years is nothing. If there is methane, it means there is basically a process going on now."
 
The prospect of finding life on Mars, even microscopic organisms, has excited scientists for some time, but so far none has been discovered.
 
"The fact that they've not found life doesn't mean certainly that there's no life there," said Ferri, noting that much of the planet's vast surface hasn't yet been closely examined.
 
That task will fall to a rover that ESA plans to send to Mars in 2018. Until then, the orbiter will have time to find a good landing spot and conduct a test run, using a trial lander called Schiaparelli that's already on board the probe.
 
If life is discovered, it actually raises questions about whether future manned missions to the planet should be attempted, said Mark McCaughrean, senior science adviser at ESA.
 
"Weirdly, if we find life on Mars, it actually really begs the question if we should go at all with human beings because of that idea of planetary protection," he said at ESA mission control in Darmstadt, Germany. "We would take with us bugs, and if now those bugs meet Martian bugs, that could be a disaster."
 
Landing a spacecraft on Mars is notoriously difficult and several attempts in the past have failed, including ESA's Beagle 2 probe that was part of the Mars Express mission in 2003. Beagle 2 disappeared during the landing process, a setback the agency is keen to avoid this time, hence the decision to separate the orbiter mission from the actual landing attempt.
 
"It was quite clear that putting both things in one mission drove up the complexity," said Ferri.
 
ExoMars, which cost the European Space Agency alone $1.44 billion, is the first interplanetary mission jointly undertaken by ESA and Roscosmos.
 
The orbiter also has a NASA-built radio on board that will help relay signals from other Mars probes.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did Paolo Ferri say “Four hundred years is nothing?”
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (6)
  • holdeno-3-bar
    3/18/2016 - 12:17 p.m.

    Paolo Ferri said "Four hundred years is nothing" because the timeline of the universe is exponentially longer than 400 years. When talking about the decay period of methane, Ferri said, "If there is methane, it means there is basically a [biological/geological] process going on now" (5) The universe has been around for 13.8 billion years. 400 years is just a blip on the primordial timeline. This justifies Ferri saying that 400 years mean nothing.
    I am excited that the world is exploring Mars. This article was very informational.

  • tylerk-ver
    3/18/2016 - 03:22 p.m.

    They are looking for life on Mars again. Europe and Asia are studying the atmosphere and looking for life. iIt is hard to land the rocket and might crash.

  • claumyj2-pay
    3/28/2016 - 08:11 a.m.

    What he is saying that methane couldn't just be older that 400 years due to our expansive universe. Our universe is continually changing which makes the "400 years older" phrase nonfactual.

  • sunils1-pay
    3/28/2016 - 09:01 a.m.

    Pablo Ferri says that "four hundred years is nothing" due to the fact that "space" has existed for an exceptionally large amount of time, well over this four hundred mark. According to the article, the universe has been around for approximately 13.8 billion years. That large number has no comparison to a minuscule 400, rendering it as basically "nothing".

  • janayj1-pay
    3/28/2016 - 09:24 a.m.

    Compared to the evolution of Earth's species, it took millions of years for cells to develop membranes. On Mars, with the methane levels present after 400 years, it would be nothing.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    7/20/2016 - 10:32 p.m.

    Paolo Ferri said, "Four hundred years is nothing," because the universe is billions of years old. In the overview of things, four hundred years are nothing in comparison to billions. Hopefully mission ExoMars is able to give scientists a better understanding of Mars and its atmosphere, even if aliens are not included.

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