PARIS • European-Russian spacecraft were on course for Mars yesterday after crucial deep-space manoeuvres in preparation for a daring mission to find evidence of life on the Red Planet.
The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership dispatched the tiny Mars lander called Schiaparelli on a three-day trek to the Martian surface on Sunday in a key phase of the joint ExoMars project.
There were nervous moments for ground controllers when the TGO, designed to enter Mars' orbit to analyse its atmosphere for signs of life, stopped sending status updates for about an hour before coming back online.
In the early hours of yesterday, the TGO successfully completed a planned manoeuvre to change course to avoid joining Schiaparelli on the Martian surface, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.
"Firing its engine for about 1min 46sec raised the TGO's orbit by several hundred km 'above' the planet, ahead of its planned orbit insertion on Wednesday," the agency wrote on its ExoMars blog.
The TGO and Schiaparelli, sent into space in March, comprise phase one of the ExoMars mission. The TGO, with the 600kg Schiaparelli on board, travelled seven months and 496 million kilometres from Earth before Sunday's separation.
It then headed for Mars' orbit while the paddling pool-size lander began a million-kilometre descent to the surface, where it is scheduled to arrive tomorrow.
ExoMars is Europe's first attempt at reaching the planet's hostile surface after its first failed bid 13 years ago to place the first non-American rover on Mars.
The TGO's job will be to sniff the Red Planet's thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere for gases possibly excreted by living organisms, however small or primitive.
Schiaparelli's purpose, in turn, is to test entry and landing technology for a subsequent rover which will mark the second phase and high point of the ExoMars mission.
After a two-year funding delay, the rover is due for launch in 2020, arriving about six months later to explore the Red Planet and drill into it, in search of extraterrestrial life - past or present.
While any life is unlikely to be found on the barren, radiation- blasted surface, scientists say traces of methane in Mars' atmosphere may indicate there is something underground, possibly single-celled microbes.