Boosted off planet Earth by a Russian Proton rocket, a European-built space probe departed for Mars on Monday, beginning a mission to test future landing technologies and search for methane, a potential signature of microbial life.
The mission also aims to map Mars in high-resolution and search for hydrogen embedded in the Martian crust, a data point that suggests the presence of water at or just below the surface.
A piggyback lander accompanies the orbiter on the trip, heading for an experimental descent into the Martian atmosphere in October.
The landing probe is named for 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who made telescopic observations of Mars and triggered a wave of interest in Earth’s neighboring planet after he thought he found water-filled channels crisscrossing the rust-colored world.
It turns out Schiaparelli was wrong, but his pioneering work in planetary science led future astronomers into the field.
The successful launch Wednesday is the first phase of an ambitious multibillion-dollar Mars exploration program led by the European Space Agency.
Named ExoMars, the program is a partnership between Europe and Russia, which agreed to provide rocket rides in 2016 and 2018 for back-to-back launches to Mars.
The mission took off at 0931:42 GMT (5:31:42 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, vaulting into low clouds in less than 30 seconds on the power of more than 2 million pounds of thrust from the Proton rocket’s six RD-276 first stage engines.
Ten minutes later, the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Proton booster had accelerated to more than 15,000 mph (24,000 kilometers per hour).
A Breeze M rocket stage launched atop the Proton rocket took over control of the mission, firing four times over more than 10 hours to reach higher orbits and eventually escape Earth’s gravitational tug.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander deployed from the Breeze M upper stage at 2012 GMT (4:12 p.m. EDT). Less than 90 minutes later, engineers at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, received the first signals from the newly-launched spacecraft.
“We have AOS (acquisition of signal),” reported Michel Denis, ESA’s flight operations director for ExoMars. “We have a mission, and for the second time, Europe is going to Mars, so go, go, go ExoMars.”
“It’s been a long journey getting the first ExoMars mission to the launch pad, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of our international teams, a new era of Mars exploration is now within our reach,” said Johann-Dietrich Woerner, ESA’s director general. “I am grateful to our Russian partner, who have given this mission the best possible start today. Now we will explore Mars together.”
The orbiter and lander composite combine to make the spacecraft launched Wednesday one of the biggest ever sent to Mars, weighing in at approximately 9,550 pounds (4,332 kilograms) and measuring about the size of a moving van.
Soon after the ground team established contact with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, ESA confirmed the spacecraft extended its power-generating solar panels, another key milestone in the critical early hours of the mission.
A high-gain communications antenna was also to deploy shortly after ExoMars’ separation from the launcher, allowing the orbiter to communicate with Earth during the 310 million-mile (500 million-kilometer) voyage to Mars.
Arrival at Mars is scheduled for Oct. 19.
Three days before getting to the red planet, the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander will part ways.
The orbiter will fire its main engine for a make-or-break maneuver to be captured by Martian gravity into a looping, highly elliptical path around the red planet ranging in altitude from 186 miles (300 kilometers) to nearly 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers).
On the same day, Schiparelli will hit the upper atmosphere of Mars at 13,000 mph (21,000 kilometers per hour) for a six-minute descent aided by a heat shield, a new European-made supersonic parachute, and braking rockets.
Schiaparelli will touch down in Meridiani Planum, a broad, relatively flat region currently being explored by NASA’s Opportunity rover. Unlike Opportunity, Schiaparelli will have a brief life on Mars, and designers expect it to drain its batteries within a week.
The lander’s primary objective is demonstrating technology to be applied to a European rover due for launch in 2018 or 2020.
The ExoMars orbiter will dip into the upper fringes of the atmosphere of Mars for a series of “aerobraking” campaigns, using air drag to move the spacecraft into a circular orbit about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the planet tilted at an angle of 74 degrees to the equator.
The orbiter’s five-year mission will begin in late 2017, once the spacecraft arrives at its operational altitude to survey the planet with a high-resolution stereo mapping camera and analyze the gases making up the Martian atmosphere.
The ExoMars spacecraft’s orbit also makes it available to act as a communications relay for landers, such as Europe’s future rover, NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity vehicles, and the U.S.-led Mars 2020 rover mission.
The methane question has puzzled scientists for more than a decade, since Europe’s Mars Express mission found traces of the gas in the Martian atmosphere in 2004, a surprise discovery that immediately led researchers to ask if Mars was still biologically or geologically active.
The methane signal later disappeared, but not before ground-based observatories detected the gas. The Curiosity rover also sensed a brief spike in methane in the air at its landing site.
“The exciting part of the mission will be the landing,” said Jorge Vago, ESA’s ExoMars project scientist. “The scientific component of the mission will require patience. We are trying to, first of all, confirm the methane detection of Mars Express, and also the detection from Earth. Curiosity has also seen methane, so we have three points.
“First of all, it’s to confirm the methane on Mars,” Vago said in an interview on the eve of the launch. Secondly, (we) try to understand how much of it there is, and thirdly, what is the latitudinal or seasonal variation.
“To be able to disentangle all this, we will need to observe for a long time,” Vago told Spaceflight Now. “First of all, it takes us about a year of aerobraking to get to the science orbit, and then it will take us about one or two years of observations to figure all these things out. As far as the story of the methane goes, it will be an exercise in patience.”
The mission dispatched Monday is Europe’s second Mars project, coming after more than a decade of development mired by financial, political and technical troubles.
“It was a highly emotional moment,” said Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency, moments after witnessing the launch from Baikonur.
Italy is the ExoMars program’s largest funder, and the country led the design and fabrication of the Schiaparelli lander at Thales Alenia Space’s facility in Turin, Italy.
“We have been waiting for that for about 15 years, and today it is a reality,” Battiston said of the launch. “We are not launching a rocket, we’re launching a dream, a dream for future even more ambitious missions.”
The next chapter will include the European rover and a Russian landing platform launching together on another Proton booster as soon as May 2018.
But officials caution the mission faces possible delay until 2020, the next time Earth and Mars are properly aligned for a direct trip.
ESA originally planned to partner with NASA on the ExoMars program, with the U.S. space agency supplying Atlas 5 rockets for the 2016 and 2018 launches and a descent package to deliver the European rover to the Martian surface. NASA also considered building is own rover to go to Mars with the European robot, allowing the two vehicles to explore in tandem.
But NASA largely withdrew from the ExoMars program in 2012 after cuts to the agency’s planetary science budget left no funding available to pay for the U.S. contributions, except for UHF radios to communicate with rovers on the Martian surface and sensor equipment for the ExoMars rover.
ESA’s budget ceiling on the ExoMars program is 1.2 billion euros, or about $1.3 billion at current exchange rates. That is not enough to cover the costs of the two rockets required by the missions, so European space officials sought Russia as a partner to launch the spacecraft in 2016 and 2018, giving Russian scientists access to build instruments to fly to Mars on the orbiter and lander.
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