Did life once exist on Mars? To find out, the European Space Agency (ESA) is launching two missions to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2020. The second of these missions will land a roving laboratory on its surface.

The ExoMars programme takes its name from the field of ‘exobiology’, the science that seeks to detect traces of extraterrestrial lifeforms. ExoMars is being pursued in partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, and will comprise two successive missions, both to be launched by a Proton rocket.

The 2016 mission will insert a satellite into Mars orbit to study the planet’s atmosphere and evolution, while also providing a platform to relay telecommunications to Earth for later surface operations. Called Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), this satellite will carry Russian and European instruments to detect any trace gases like methane or other hydrocarbons in Mars’ atmosphere.

Just before insertion into Mars orbit, TGO will release an Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) that will descend by parachute to the planet’s surface. ESA has named this module Schiaparelli after the Italian astronomer who famously mapped Mars’ surface features in the 19th century. It is equipped with a range of sensors to measure the module’s performance during its descent and landing. As it has no solar panels, it will only operate on the surface for a short time. However, a suite of sensors will collect environmental data for 4 Earth days until the module’s batteries run out.

The 2020 mission will land a Russian platform and a European rover on Mars. The platform will carry Russian and European instruments that will acquire measurements of the planet’s environment for one Mars year (687 Earth days), while the 310-kg rover will have 9 scientific instruments to study the soil and subsoil. Able to drill down to a depth of 2 metres, this rover will collect and analyse samples that have not been exposed to the radiation and oxidizers that would otherwise destroy organic materials.

CNES and French research laboratories are responsible for 2 instruments on the European rover: MicroOmega, a spectrometer capable of imaging in the visible and infrared to study samples’ mineral composition; and WISDOM, a radar to study and characterize the structure of the subsoil. France is also contributing to 3 other instruments—MOMA, RLS and CLUPI—being developed by other ESA member nations, while CNES is working with ESA on entry and descent studies for the 2016 lander module and is supplying visual navigation software for the 2020 rover.