General Studies IIISpace

ExoMars 2022 Mission


The European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2022 mission won’t launch in September, 2022 as planned after the agency suspended all cooperation with Russia’s space program Roscosmos.

About ExoMars 2022 Mission:

  • ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) is an astrobiology programme of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
  • The goals of ExoMars are to search for signs of past life on Mars, investigate how the Martian water and geochemical environment varies, investigate atmospheric trace gases and their sources and by doing so demonstrate the technologies for a future Mars sample-return mission.
  • The first part of the programme is a mission launched in 2016 that placed the Trace Gas Orbiter into Mars orbit and released the Schiaparelli EDM lander.
    • The orbiter is operational but the lander crashed on the planet’s surface.
  • The second part of the programme was planned to launch in July 2020,
  • The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and a test stationary lander called Schiaparelli were launched on 14 March 2016.

How is the Mission Dependent on Russia?

  • The mission uses a number of Russian-made components — including the rockets.
    • The 2016 launch used a Russian-made Proton-M rocket, the same type planned for the launch in September, 2022.
  • Many components of the mission’s rover are also Russian-made.
    • The components include radioisotope heaters that are used to keep the rover warm at night on the surface of Mars.

What about the Other Mars Missions?

  • NASA’s Perseverance Rover
  • UAE’s Hope Mars Mission (UAE’s first-ever interplanetary mission)
  • India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan:
    • It was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh by the Indian Space Research Organisation in November 2013.
    • It was launched on board a PSLV C25 rocket with the aim of studying Martian surface and mineral composition as well as scan its atmosphere for methane (an indicator of life on Mars).
  • Tianwen-1: China’s Mars Mission

Why explore Mars?

  • Past studies of Mars revealed that the planet was once quite capable of hosting ecosystems and that it might still be an incubator for microbial life.
  • Mars is more than half of Earth’s size, with gravity only 38% of Earth’s.
  • It takes longer than the Earth to complete a full orbit around the Sun.
  • However, it rotates around its axis at roughly the same speed.
  • Thus, one year on Mars in 687 Earth Days and a day on Mars is just 40 minutes longer than on Earth.
  • Despite its smaller size, the red planet’s land area is also roughly equivalent to the surface area of the Earth’s continents. This means that Mars may have the same amount of habitable real estate.
  • However, the planet is currently wrapped around a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere and cannot support Earthly life-forms.
  • Methane gas also appears periodically in the atmosphere and the soil contains compounds that could be toxic to Earth-based life.
  • Though water does exist on Mars, it is locked into the planet’s icy polar caps and may be buried beneath the Martian surface.
  • The recent studies of the Martian surface show that the planet, in the past, may have had a vast ocean covering its northern hemisphere.
  • Elsewhere, there was evidence of rainstorms, lakes, rivers and carving troughs.
  • They were likely wrapped in a thick atmosphere capable of maintaining liquid water at Martian temperature and pressure.
  • However, a series of evolutions led to the planet that was once Earth-like become the dusty, dry husk that we now see.
  • The Mars exploration aims to study this transformation, learn about momentous shifts in climate that fundamentally modify the planets.
  • The objective is also to look into biosignatures, signs that might reveal whether life was abundant in the planet’s past and if it still exists today.
  • These studies may equip us in making a living there in the future.

What is interplanetary contamination? 

  • With the increasing number of space missions, along with the advances in commercial space flight, astrobiologists are concerned about the possibility of ‘interplanetary contamination’.
  • Such contaminations are of two types:
  • Forward contamination
  • Back contamination

Forward contamination:

  • Forward contamination is the transport of Earth-based microbes to other celestial bodies.
  • Previous space missions have established physical contact with astronomical bodies like the moon, comets and asteroids.
  • However, these bodies are known to be hostile to life, creating a lesser possibility of their forward contamination.
  • However, Mars missions have revealed the possibility of the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface today or at some point in its past.
  • Currently, scientists are looking for signs of life on the neighbouring planet.
  • Astrobiologists believe that if there is a chance that Mars has life, even in its most primitive form, there is an ethical obligation on humanity to ensure that microbes from Earth do not disturb a possible Martian biosphere, allowing it to evolve in its own way.
  • Experts also worry that the Earth-based organisms could spoil the integrity of the Red Planet’s samples that rovers want to study, disrupting the signs of native Martian life.

Back contamination:

  • Back contamination is the transfer of extra-terrestrial organisms (if they exist) into the Earth’s biosphere.
  • NASA is planning for a mission to return the samples collected from Mars back to Earth by 2031.
  • There are concerns about back contamination from this mission.
  • Scientists, however, rule out the possibility of back contamination as it is highly unlikely that Martian microbes (if they exist) would infect human beings. This is because Martian microbes’ biochemistry would be more different from that on Earth.

What are the measures taken to prevent possible interplanetary contamination? 

  • The United Nations Outer Space Treaty, 1967, which serves as a bulwark against the militarization of space, also requires nations to address contamination risk.
  • To ensure compliance with the Treaty, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) lays down a ‘planetary protection policy’.
  • This policy aims to limit the number of microbes sent to other planets and also ensuring that alien life does not in any way affect the Earth.
  • These guidelines have had far-reaching implications on human spacecraft design, operational procedures and overall mission structure.
  • NASA and ESA have Planetary Protection Officers specifically for this purpose.
  • To prevent forward contamination, space missions take care to ensure that spacecraft are sterilised. Previous Mars missions were all sterilised before the launch.
  • NASA’s recent Perseverance mission was postponed for the second time to resolve the potential contamination issue.
  • In the case of back contamination, sterilisation is not an option, as it would destroy the extraterrestrial samples.
  • Containment would be the only option to break the chain of contact between potential alien microbes and life on Earth.

Source: Indian Express/ ExoMars

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