ExoMars Launches to Mars

March 14, 2016

Giovanni Schiaparelli, one of the most famous observers of Mars prior to the space age, would have celebrated his 181st birthday today, were it not for, you know, aging. Though he wasn’t around to celebrate, he nonetheless received a pretty amazing gift.

At 09:31 GMT, a Russian Proton-M rocket lifted off from the historic launch facility at Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Where once top secret Soviet satellites and crewed spacecraft launched to space in a heated space race with the United States, today an international mission of science and discovery called ExoMars began its 496 km journey to Mars.

The main spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), will search for methane sources on the Red Planet and map hydrogen content below the surface, continuing Schiaparelli’s search for life in the solar system. While the Italian astronomer used a big telescope and a keen eye to chart what he referred to as canali on the surface, TGO will use advanced neutron detectors and stereo photography.


Perched atop the TGO, in a small aerodynamic capsule, is the entry and descent landing demonstrator, a small spacecraft designed to plunge into the atmosphere of Mars. Slowing down using a heat shield, a parachute, and a set of pulse-fired liquid-fueled rocket thrusters, it will come to a stop in Meridiani Planum (where NASA’s Opportunity Rover is still exploring today) with an uncerimonious thump, atop it’s collapsible landing pad. The lander’s name? Why, Schiaparelli, of course.
It’s an ambitious mission which has only just begun; course corrections are planned throughout it’s 7-month journey, and TGO will need to operate for many years after insertion, conducting science and also acting as relays for surface operating spacecraft, including the upcoming follow up from ESA – the ExoMars 2018 rover.Here at WeMartians, the event began early in the morning. Very early.


The pre-launch operations went well. The launch vehicle was fueled, the gantry was retracted, and the thermal blankets were removed from the payload fairings. Launch polls went flawlessly, and the spacecraft was moved to internal power. Finally, without a lot of pomp or circumstance, Proton-M leisurely climbed from the pad, unhindered by the usual launch clamps that usually hold down its cousins like Soyuz.
And while the liftoff seemed pretty casual, the launch sequence was fast and furious. It was my first real attempt at live-tweeting a launch; I hope I did ok!
The orbital insertion of ExoMars and it’s Briz-M upper stage was only the beginning though. Thanks to a highly efficient but very low-thrust engine on the Briz-M, the spacecraft doesn’t have the power necessary to escape Earth’s gravity in one fell swoop (ie. a single engine burn). It has to do a really tedious and time-consuming multi-orbit, 4-burn manoeuvre before it can head to Mars. I took this opportunity to share some info about the tracking stations used during the launch sequence.
Ninety minutes after launch, the spacecraft circled around the Earth and began it’s second burn.
Along the journey, I filled the time with still more fun facts! Some were even delivered by Michael Khan, a trajectory specialist for ExoMars!
Following the third burn, which raised the apogee to 21,000 km, I shared some info from the Schiaparelli landing presentation, which had some great testing videos.
Then I had a nap. I had been up all night and needed a bit of a refresher so I could be back for the fourth and final burn, which was not scheduled for six more hours as ExoMars circled a highly eccentric orbit around the Earth. Social media took a break, too, but as the moment approached, things started heating up again!
The final burn was a success. ExoMars was officially en route to Mars, and the spacecraft separated from the Briz-M upper stage.  If you’ve ever wondered what happens when your tweet is retweeted by Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor of the Planetary Society, it looks like this. I might need a new vibration motor in my phone after all the activity.
The final crucial moment of the day was over an hour after separation. At this point, the automated sequence on board the spacecraft switched to cruise mode, and phoned home to the little 2 metre X-band antenna dish in Malindi, Kenya. ESOC then commanded ExoMars to open its solar panels, bathing the spacecraft in sunlight now that it has crossed the terminator. The precise trajectory of the spacecraft could then be calculated.
And the event concluded with the ceremonial first tweet from the ExoMars orbiter, a new custom among space agencies looking to reach greater audiences by anthropomorphizing their spacecraft.
It was a fantastic ride, but ExoMars is on the way. In mid-October, it will reach the Red Planet – we’ll talk more about it then!
Happy Birthday, Giovanni!

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