ExoMars 2016, the first of a two-phase Mars exploration, will see an orbiter hoisted from Kazakhstan at 0931 GMT Monday on a Russian Proton rocket.

With its suite of high-tech instruments, the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO, should arrive at the Red Planet on October 19 after a journey of 496 million kilometres (308 million miles).

Its main mission to photograph the Red Planet and analyse its air, the TGO will also piggyback a Mars lander dubbed Schiaparelli.

"Rocket rollout -- our #ExoMars 2016 mission is at the launch pad!" the European Space Agency (ESA) tweeted Friday.

ExoMars is a two-step collaboration between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos space agency. The second phase, a Mars rover due for launch in 2018, seems likely to be delayed over money worries.

But the first phase is going ahead as planned, and with high expectations: "Determining whether Mars is 'alive' today", according to an ESA document.

A key goal is to analyse methane, a gas which on Earth is created in large part by living microbes, and traces of which were observed by previous Mars missions.

"TGO will be like a big nose in space," according to Jorge Vago, ExoMars project scientist. Methane, the ESA said, is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation within a few hundred years, which implied that in Mars' case "it must still be produced today."

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