The new search for life on Mars

The European Space Agency’s robotic rover will be looking for signs of life on Mars in two years' time. Sunday, 28 October 2018

By Dominic Bliss

If all goes to plan,the European Space Agency’s robotic rover, part of the ExoMars mission, will be looking for signs of life on Mars in spring 2021. The mission will launch from Kazakhstan in July 2020, when the journey between Earth and Mars will be shortest. Eight months later the rover will land near the red planet’s equator, where the surface is fairly flat.

Frenchman Francois Spoto, who’s with the European Space Research and Technology Centre, is the mission’s project manager. He explains that the rover contains a laboratory with a suite of sophisticated instruments that will seek out optimal spots to take soil samples and analyse biomarkers, such as water vapour and methane.

Should the mission prove successful, Spoto is convinced that any traces of life found will be from the distant past.

“Even though we have targeted a lot of exoplanets so far, we don’t have proof that any of them had similar conditions to ours to hold life.”

Perhaps the mission could reassure us that we’re not alone in the universe. Spoto thinks it could also be a stepping stone toward future, more ambitious expeditions to Mars. “If we find proof of exobiological life, it will rejuvenate interest in further missions. ExoMars 2020 is pushing forward European technological capabilities,” he says.

Once the rover starts collecting soil samples, it will take at least five months before the mission can confirm whether there is evidence of life on Mars. “Human beings have been living on Earth without this information since they first existed, so they can wait a few more months for proper checks before we reveal anything,” Spoto says.

The November issue of National Geographic, guest edited by Tim Peake, goes on sale on 31 October.