Double landings to seek out planet life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am

With the search for life as its main aim, the two-mission ExoMars endeavour will see the launch of an orbiter in 2016 and a rover in 2018.

The orbiter's main task will be to track down the sources of methane and other trace gases recently detected on Mars. The presence of methane is intriguing because its origin is either present-day life or geological activity. Confirmation of either would be a major discovery.

Then, two years later, the six-wheeled rover will be directed toward one of the most interesting potential methane sources, where drilling, grinding, sample flattening and analysis will take place.

Once safely landed on the Martian surface, the solar-powered rover will begin a six-month operation. It will navigate autonomously across the surface, while its stereo camera builds a 3D map of the terrain so the vehicle avoids obstacles and finds the best route.

Information will then be beamed back to Earth via a relay satellite.

Apart from Earth, Mars has the solar system's most hospitable climate.