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Europe-Russia Launch Spacecraft to Mars
Mar 19, 2016

Boosted off planet Earth by a Russian Proton rocket, a European-built space probe departed for Mars on 16 March, beginning a mission to test future landing technologies and search for Methane, a potential signature of microbial life.

  • The successful launch 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 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on the power of more than 2 million pounds of thrust from the 58-metre (191-foot-tall) Proton booster’s six RD-276 first stage engines.

  • 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 neighbouring planet after he thought he found water-filled channels crisscrossing the rust-coloured world.

  • 90 minutes after the take-off, engineers at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, received the first signals from the newly-launched spacecraft.

  • The orbiter and lander composite combine to make the spacecraft one of the biggest ever sent to Mars, weighing in at approximately 4,332 kg and measuring about the size of a moving van.

  • The spacecraft extended its power-generating solar panels 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 500 million-kilometre voyage to Mars.

  • Its arrival at Mars is scheduled for 19 October. Three days before getting to the red planet, the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander will part ways.

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.

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