The European/Russian Trace Gas Orbiter lifts off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

ESA/Stephane Corvaja, 2016

Methane-sniffer on its way to Mars

The European/Russian Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission, the first installment in the two-part ExoMars program, lifted off today at 9:31 GMT. The proton rocket’s upper stage will continue to boost the probe for 10 hours up to a relative speed of 33,000 kilometers per hour before releasing it onto its 7-month trajectory to Mars.

The TGO’s main aim is to detect and map emissions of methane around the Red Planet. The presence of methane has been tantalizing scientists since 2004, when a previous European Space Agency mission, Mars Express, first detected it while circling the planet. Further detections, from orbit, on the surface, and by Earth-bound telescopes, have not answered the question of whether the gas is produced by some geological process or by microbes that once lived on the planet—or even by microbes that survive today. A pair of highly sensitive spectrometers on the TGO will hopefully put the matter to rest.

The mission also carries an experimental lander called Schiaparelli, designed to test landing technologies that will pave the way for the second part of ExoMars: a rover to be launched in 2018 that can drill 2 meters below the surface in search of signs of life.