ExoMars Mars Mission Phones Home After Launch

PHOTO: A Russian Proton-M rocket carrying the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft blasts off from the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome on March 14, 2016. PlayKirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
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The ExoMars orbiter phoned home last night after it launched on the back of a Russian Proton-M rocket and confirmed all of its systems are in good health for the seven month journey to the Red Planet.

"It’s been a long journey getting the first ExoMars mission to the launch pad, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of our international teams, a new era of Mars exploration is now within our reach," Johann-Dietrich Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, said in a statement.

The goal of the mission is to search for signs of past or present biological activity on the Red Planet.

The launch included the ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter, a tool designed to detect methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere that could indicate signs of past or present life. Also on board is the Schiaparelli lander, which will be used to test technology needed for a more advanced rover that will be sent in 2018.

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, are partnering on the two-part ExoMars mission, which will include a second launch in 2018.

ExoMars is scheduled to reach its destination on Oct. 19, at which point the Trace Gas Orbiter will fire its engines for two hours to enter an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet. The orbiter will take inventory of Mars' atmospheric gases and try to understand whether traces of methane that have been detected on Mars since 2003 are coming from a geological or biological sources, according to the ESA.

It will also image the surface of Mars and search for water ice on or just below the surface.

Meanwhile, the battery-powered Schiaparelli lander will descend onto the Martian surface to test key landing technologies in preparation for future missions. When the next phase of the mission launches in 2018, a more sophisticated rover with a drill and science instruments will be sent to Mars for more in-depth scientific research.