Europe has been in orbit around Mars for more than 15 years and is almost a year away from launching its first rover mission, but ambitions are already running high to go one step further: returning a sample from the Red Planet.
In 2016, ESA and Roscomos launched the 3.7 tonne ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the heaviest spacecraft operating at Mars today. Dedicated to analysing the planet’s atmosphere in greater detail than ever, it is making a census of the gases present and to find out if any have a biological or geological origin. The spacecraft is also providing a global map of water distribution in terms of water-ice or water-hydrated minerals in the shallow sub-surface of Mars.
TGO is also a key provider of data-relay services to NASA’s Insight lander and Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. It will be the primary communications relay for the second ExoMars mission, which comprises a rover and surface science platform. It is on track for launching in July 2020 and will arrive at Mars in March 2021. TGO is already getting ready for the new arrival: next month it will make adjustments to its orbit to ensure it will be in the correct position to support the entry, descent and landing of the descent module.
After driving off the surface platform and studying its surrounds, the rover, named Rosalind Franklin, will locate scientifically interesting sites to examine. It will retrieve samples from 2 m below the ground, where they are protected from the harsh radiation that bombards the surface, for analysis in its highly advanced onboard laboratory to search for evidence of life.