Europe is officially on its way to Mars

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The Proton rocket carrying an orbiter and a lander headed for Mars has officially left Earth.

In 12 hours’ time we’ll know whether it’s been a success if the spacecraft’s signal is acquired.

Here’s where the joint European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) mission is headed.

Pretty daunting right?

Two probes are scheduled for landing on Mars in seven months’ time on October 19.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will search for signs of methane in the Martian atmosphere and try to discover its source. Methane exists where life exists, but the gas could also be given off by geological processes on the Red Planet.

ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago explained during a briefing before the launch the similarities between conditions on early Mars to those of early Earth. There’s evidence that water existed on the planet’s surface – and plenty of it – but something happened between then and now to leave the dry planet we find today.

Vago speculated that microbial life may have existed back then, and that methane in Mars’ atmosphere could come from life forms that exist below the surface. ExoMars’ main mission is to find signs of life.

The second probe landing on Mars, Schiaparelli, will land during dust storm season – and will be the first to do so.

Its main mission is to study the weather in preparation for the ExoMars rover landing on Mars in 2018.

Landing on Mars is difficult enough, given the planet’s thin atmosphere, so this will be a real test of the technology on both Schiaparelli and TGO.

But, there’s a lot that needs to happen between here and Mars before anyone starts worrying about landing.

Graphic showing the process of ExoMars rockets