Europe to send rover to Mars

Move over Curiosity: The European Space Agency plans to land a rover on Mars in 2019. The bot will search for signs of life by collecting and processing spoon-size samples drilled from below the Martian surface.

Life on Mars would likely produce enough gas to alter the planet's atmosphere. A satellite will search for any telltale signs.

Life on Mars would likely produce enough gas to alter the planet’s atmosphere. A satellite will search for any telltale signs. ESA

The rover got a boost this week when ESA signed a contract with a private space company to build the final components of a 2016 mission that will complement the rover’s research. The January 2016 launch will land a module on the planet’s surface to prepare for the rover and send a satellite to search the atmosphere for interesting gases.

Like on Earth, it is expected that Martian life would produce gases. Bacteria, for example, might emit methane, which can be detected by a satellite. ESA confirmed the presence of methane in Mars’ atmosphere in 2004. Now the big question is where it comes from.

Once ESA selects a landing site likely to contain well-preserved hints of life, the rover will spend nine months traveling to Mars. It is capable of traveling about 300 feet a day with solar and battery power. It will only be able to communicate with Earth once or twice a day, so it will work mostly autonomously based on pre-set destinations.

The ESA rover can drill to a record depth of six feet — double the maximum of three for NASA’s Curiosity. Cameras and radar technology will allow scientists to peer into the ground before choosing where to drill.

Sub-surface Mars is of special interest to scientists because it has a higher chance of containing signs of life. At the surface, any ancient signatures would have worn away. There are also high levels of radiation and chemical activity that would likely kill anything living.

The contract for the 2016 mission is worth $300 million. ESA, which is composed of 20 European countries, will need to find further funding for the 2019 rover landing. A mission in the 2020s would return soil samples to Earth, though the technology doesn’t exist yet.

NASA pulled out of the ExoMars mission last year due to budget cuts, but the ESA rover will include a NASA-built soil analysis instrument. NASA is also planning a successor to Curiosity, tentatively scheduled to launch in 2020.