Europe and Russia launched a joint mission Monday to explore the atmosphere of Mars and hunt for signs of life on the red planet. The unmanned ExoMars probe— a collaboration between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos — took off from a base in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian rocket. Mission controllers in Darmstadt, Germany, said they began receiving a signal from the spacecraft about 11 hours after launch, after it had successfully separated from the rocket and deployed its solar wings to continue on its journey. It is expected to reach Mars in October.

The probe’s Trace Gas Orbiter will analyze methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere to determine where they are coming from, said Paolo Ferri, ESA’s head of mission operations. Methane is created by biological or geological activity and breaks down within a relatively short period of time once it reaches the atmosphere. READ MORE