A massive spacecraft bound for Mars lifted off on a Russian Proton rocket Monday, riding more than 2 million pounds of thrust from the launcher’s six main engines through low clouds hanging over the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander, bolted together inside the nose cone of the 191-foot-tall Proton rocket, are heading off on a seven-month journey to the red planet.
Led by the European Space Agency, the ExoMars mission is a two-part program with launches in 2016 and 2018 carrying an orbiter and landing demonstrator and a mobile rover, respectively.
Russia is the primary partner on the ExoMars program, while NASA is contributing UHF radios and instrumentation for the 2018 rover to detect organics, the building blocks of life.
The Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli blasted off at 0931:42 GMT (5:31:42 a.m. EDT) from Complex 200 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The three-stage Proton booster accelerated the ExoMars spacecraft — with a launch mass of more than 4.3 metric tons (about 9,550 pounds) — into space in less than 10 minutes. A Breeze M upper stage mounted on top of the Proton rocket was programmed to five its main engine four times to propel the ExoMars probe on a trajectory to escape the bonds of Earth’s gravity and head for Mars.
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