Anyone who glanced at the skies above Kazakhstan Monday morning may have seen the trails of a spacecraft headed out on a search for alien life on Mars. Per the Guardian, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a joint effort by the European Space Agency and Russia's Roscosmos agency, launched on a Proton rocket in what one manager called a "picture book performance." Its task will involve measuring trace levels of gases in the Red Planet's atmosphere, including methane, which is produced as a waste product by living creatures and has been detected on Mars before. But "other purely geological processes, such as the oxidation of certain minerals, also release methane," the ESA website explains, meaning whether scientists will find alien insects (perhaps), piles of rocks (maybe), or full-blown Martians (unlikely) is still not clear.
The TGO, which is the first phase of the ExoMars mission (a rover with a drill is set to be sent to Mars in 2018), will take seven months to make the 308-million-mile trip. It will also be on the lookout for water vapor, nitrogen oxides, and acetylene, CNN notes. In mid-October, the craft's Schiaperelli lander is scheduled to be released and touch down on Mars' surface, which, if successful, would make it a first for any space agency other than NASA, Sky and Telescope reports; NASASpaceFlight.com adds the Beagle 2 probe was launched, and landed, in 2003, but a malfunction prevented communications with the lander. "It's a milestone that caps off several years of preparation—designing, building, and testing the ground systems, preparing the flight operations procedures, and then finally an intensive period of team training," the mission operations head says in an ESA press release. (A NASA scientist says he can get humans to Mars in one month's time.)