Mars Express, the spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency to survey Mars, has encountered an instrumentation problem that could potentially curb the spacecraft’s ability to gather data.

Launched on June 2, 2003 with the objective to survey the planet’s atmosphere, geology, surface environment, history of water and its potential for harboring life, the spacecraft has gathered data that has helped scientists to better understand the planet.

For the past few weeks the spacecraft has experienced problems with its Planetary Fourier Spectrometer, or PFS, which is “used to detect anything from water vapor to aerosols” according to Sushil Atreya, professor and director of the Planetary Science Laboratory at the University.

One of seven instruments onboard the spacecraft, it has the capability to detect biological markers that are produced by living organisms.

One such marker is methane. On Earth, methane is produced mainly from biological sources.

With the tantalizing possibility of finding microbes on Mars that produce methane, instruments such as the PFS are key to the spacecraft’s mission of deducing if life currently or once existed on the planet.

Atreya said the problem with the PFS onboard Mars Express has yet to be diagnosed.

However, some believe that the vibrations caused by the spacecraft’s orbit might be the cause of the malfunctioning PFS.

The ESA has set up an panel which is attempting to investigate the exact cause of the problem.

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