A Proton-M rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early Monday, carrying the ExoMars spacecraft. In October, the Russian and European mission will arrive in orbit around the planet next door, where it will sniff the atmosphere and send an experimental lander to the surface.
The European Space Agency designed the ExoMars orbiter, which will be on the hunt for gases, like methane, that we associate with the presence of life on our own planet. The hope is that the spacecraft will also be able to help pinpoint the location and sources of such gases. You could say that ExoMars will be sniffing around the edge of Mars for any evidence of life, no matter how stinky it might be.
When the orbiter gets to Mars, it will eject a lander named Schiaparelli, a demonstrator module that will test technologies that could be used in future Mars landings. According to ESA, these technologies include "special material for thermal protection, a parachute system, a radar Doppler altimeter system, and a final braking system controlled by liquid propulsion."
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The table-sized disc is expected to survive on the surface of Mars after its landing for a short period of time on battery power to do a limited amount of scientific measurements and hopefully send back some images.
The orbiter is expected to begin its science mission at Mars in December and continue until 2022. It's the latest in a centuries-long quest to understand our neighbor, which was once thought to be crisscrossed by Martian canals and now seems to be significantly more arid and dead, but perhaps not totally dried up.
Check out the launch in the video below from Russia's space agency: