Europe heads for Red Planet Mars in search of life

Europe heads for Red Planet Mars in search of life
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PARIS (APP) - Thirteen years after its first, failed attempt to place a rover on Mars, Europe reaches a crucial stage Sunday in a fresh quest to scour the Red Planet for signs of life, this time with Russia .

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Mission controllers will instruct a spacecraft about 175 million kilometres (109 million miles) from Earth to release and steer a paddling pool-sized lander towards the Red Planet's cold, dry surface.

Scheduled to arrive next Wednesday (October 19), the short-lived lander's sole purpose is to prepare the way for a subsequent rover which will drill into Mars in search of extra-terrestrial life.

"Our goal here is to prove we can get to the surface, do science, take data," European Space Agency (ESA) science advisor Mark McCaughrean said ahead of Sunday's lander-release manoeuvres.

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Dubbed Schiaparelli, the 600-kilogramme (1,300-pound) lander will separate from its mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), after a seven-month, 496 million-kilometre (308 million-mile) trek from Earth.

The lander and the TGO -- which will enter into orbit around Mars to sniff its atmosphere for gases excreted by living organisms -- comprise the first phase of the joint European-Russian ExoMars project.

The second phase, due for launch in 2020 after a two-year funding delay, is the ExoMars rover, for which Schiaparelli will be testing entry and soft-landing technology.

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More than half of US, Russian and European attempts to land and operate craft on the Martian surface since the 1960s have failed.

The last time Europe tried, the British-built Beagle 2 disappeared without a trace after separating from the Mars Express mother ship in December 2003.

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