The first part of a joint European-Russian expedition to search for life on Mars, called ExoMars, lifted off successfully from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on top of a Proton rocket. The Russian-made launch vehicle lobbed a probe into Space, the Trace Gas Orbiter, that will enter orbit around Mars later in 2016 and search for methane in the Red Planet’s atmosphere. Methane can have a number of sources, but one of them is the waste product of microbial life. Both the Mars Express orbiter and the Mars Curiosity rover have detected some measure of methane, which could be produced by geological processes as well.

The Proton also carries the EDM Stationary Lander, known as Schiaparelli, which is meant to demonstrate European prowess in performing a controlled landing on the surface of Mars.

The lander will perform a brief science mission that will last two or three Martian days.

The Trace Gas Orbiter will also look for a landing site for the second part of ExoMars, consisting of a European-built rover to be delivered to the Martian surface with a Russian lander on 2018. The rover will roll over Mars and use a drill to extract soil samples where Martian microbes might reside. The rover will be controlled through the Trace Gas Orbiter that will still be circling overhead.

ExoMars was, at one time, a joint European-American expedition which would have provided a rover with a mix of NASA and European instruments launched on an American rocket. However, in 2013, President Barack Obama abruptly cancelled American participation in the mission as part of an overall effort to cut NASA’s planetary science budget.

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The move forced the European Space Agency to bring in Russia as a full partner, now launching an entirely European rover on a Russian rocket.

NASA’s latest Mars expedition, a lander called InSight had been scheduled to launch in 2016 but has been delayed for two years due to an equipment failure on a French-built instrument. InSight is a stationary lander that will drill through the Martian surface and probe the Red Planet’s geological processes.

Two years later, NASA intends to launch the Mars 2020 rover, an enhanced version of Mars Curiosity. The American space agency’s ultimate goal is to land astronauts on Mars sometime in the 2030s.