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Lift off! Europe and Russia launch mission to Mars

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos have successfully launched a robotic spacecraft as part of a joint mission to search for life on Mars. The ExoMars probe is expected to reach the Red Planet in seven months' time.

The unmanned ExoMars spacecraft blasted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur spaceport on board a Russian rocket at 3:31 p.m. local time (0931 UTC) on Monday.

About 11 hours after takeoff, the craft is scheduled to separate from the rocket and continue on course for Mars - a journey of 496 million kilometers (308 million miles).

DW reporter Jessie Wingard watched the launch from the European Space Agency's main mission control center in the German city of Darmstadt.

ExoMars 2016 is expected to arrive on Mars on October 19. Scientists hope it will shed light on whether life once existed - or still exists - on the Red Planet.

The craft is carrying an atmospheric probe called a Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), tasked with photographing the planet's surface and analyzing its air for evidence of life. It'll also piggyback a lander that will test technologies needed for the arrival of a rover due to follow in two years' time.

ExoMars is the first phase of a two-part Mars exploration collaboration between the European Space Agency and Russia's Roscosmos space agency. The second phase of the mission in 2018 is expected to deliver a rover capable of moving across the planet's surface, drilling into the ground and collecting samples.

Sniffing for gases

The TGO's main goal will be to analyze Mars' atmosphere for methane - a gas that exists on Earth and is largely created by living micro-organisms. The gas has been detected by previous Mars missions, but scientists aren't sure what's producing it.

"TGO will be like a big nose in space," according to ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago.

Methane can either be generated by biological processes, such as microbes decomposing organic matter, or by geological conditions. That might involve gas trapped frozen below the surface, or the oxidation of iron, similar to what occurs in active volcanoes.

The ESA said the high-tech equipment will analyze Mars' methane more closely than any previous mission.

Signs of life?

Today's Martian surface is considered too dry and radiation-rich to support organisms. However, conditions on the planet some 3.5 billion years ago may have been wetter, warmer, and generally more amenable to life.

"Proving that life exists or has existed on Mars would show that Earth is not unique in terms of having life on it," Rolf de Groot, head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Robotic Exploration Coordination Office, told Reuters.

"That would make it much more likely that there are other places in the universe that also have life," he added.

The US space agency currently has two operational rovers on Mars: Curiosity and Opportunity. And NASA this week announced plans to launch a Mars spacecraft designed to study the planet's deep interior in 2018.

nm/ (Reuters, AFP)

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