Bold Euro-Russian Expedition Blasts Free of Earth En Route to Mars in Search of Life’s Indicators

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze M fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze M fourth stage after launch atop Proton rocket on March 14, 2016. Credit: ESA

The cooperative Euro-Russian ExoMars 2016 expedition is now en route to the Red Planet after successfully firing its upper stage booster one final time on Monday evening, March 15, to blast free of the Earth’s gravitational tug and begin a 500 million kilometer interplanetary journey in a bold search of indications of life emanating from potential Martian microbes.

The vehicle is in “good health” with the solar panels unfurled, generating power and on course for the 500 Million kilometer (300 million mile) journey to Mars.

“Acquisition of signal confirmed. We have a mission to Mars!” announced Mission Control from the European Space Agency.

The joint European/Russian ExoMars spacecraft successfully blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton-M rocket at 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday, March 14, with the goal of searching for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.

Video caption: Blastoff of Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying ExoMars 2016 mission on March 14, 2016. Credit: Roscosmos

The first three stages of the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Russian-built rocket fired as scheduled over the first ten minutes and lofted the 9,550-pound (4,332-kilogram) ExoMars to orbit.

Three more firings from the Breeze-M fourth stage quickly raised the probe into progressively higher temporary parking orbits around Earth.

But the science and engineering teams from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos had to keep their fingers crossed and endure an agonizingly long wait of more than 10 hours before the fourth and final ignition of the Proton’s Breeze-M upper stage required to break the bonds of Earth.

The do or die last Breeze-M upper stage burn with ExoMars still attached was finally fired exactly as planned.

The probe was released at last from the Breeze at 20:13 GMT.

However, it took another long hour to corroborate the missions true success until the first acquisition of signal (AOS) from the spacecraft was received at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany via the Malindi ground tracking station in Africa at 5:21:29 p.m. EST (21:29 GMT), confirming a fully successful launch with the spacecraft in good health.

It was propelled outwards to begin a seven-month-long journey to the Red Planet to the great relief of everyone involved from ESA, Roscosmos and other nations participating. An upper stage failure caused the total loss of Russia’s prior mission to Mars; Phobos-Grunt.

“Only the process of collaboration produces the best technical solutions for great research results. Roscosmos and ESA are confident of the mission’s success,” said Igor Komarov, General Director of the Roscosmos State Space Corporation, in a statement.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a joined pair of European-built spacecraft consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, built and funded by ESA.

“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,” says 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.”

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

The cooperative mission includes significant participation from the Russian space agency Roscosmos who provided the Proton-M launcher, part of the science instrument package, the surface platform and ground station support.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander are speeding towards Mars joined together, on a collision course for the Red Planet. They will separate on October 16, 2016 at distance of 900,000 km from the planet, three days before arriving on October 19, 2016.
TGO will fire thrusters to alter course and enter an initial four-day elliptical orbit around the fourth planet from the sun ranging from 300 km at its perigee to 96 000 km at its apogee, or furthest point.

Over the next year, engineers will command TGO to fire thrusters and conduct a complex series of ‘aerobraking’ manoeuvres that will gradually lower the spacecraft to circular 400 km (250 mi) orbit above the surface.

The science mission to analyse for rare gases, including methane, in the thin Martian atmosphere at the nominal orbit is expected to begin in December 2017.

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:  ESA/ATG medialab
ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:
ESA/ATG medialab

As TGO enters orbit, the Schiaparelli lander will smash into the atmosphere and begin a harrowing six minute descent to the surface.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018 that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for perhaps four and up to eight days until the battery is depleted.

It will conduct a number of environmental science studies such as “obtaining the first measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that, combined with measurements of the concentration of atmospheric dust, will provide new insights into the role of electric forces on dust lifting – the trigger for dust storms,” according to ESA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

2nd Launch Disaster in 3 Weeks Strikes Russia, Destroying Proton Rocket and Mexican Comsat

Russian Proton rocket blasts off at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan but ended in disaster about eight minutes later with destruction of the rocket and Mexican comsat satellite payload heading to orbit. Credit: Roscosmos
Story updated with additional details [/caption]

For the second time in less than three weeks, a major disaster struck the Russian space program when the launch of a Proton-M rocket ended in catastrophic failure about eight minutes after today’s (May 16) liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, resulting in the complete destruction of the Mexican communications satellite payload.

The Proton-M rocket initially lifted off successfully at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT, 547 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but soon experienced an “emergency situation at 497 seconds into the flight,” according to a brief official statement released by Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency today, after the mishap.

The launch catastrophe was caused by a failure in the rockets Breeze-M third stage, says Roscosmos. It took place during a live broadcast from the agency’s website. A video shows the rocket disappearing into cloudy skies shortly after liftoff.

The failure comes just one week after the spinning, out-of-control Russian Progress 59 cargo freighter bound for the ISS met its undesired early demise when it fell uncontrolled from orbit last Friday, May 8, following its botched April 28 launch on a Russian Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket, also from Baikonur – as reported by Universe Today – here, here, and here.

The Proton-M carrier rocket was lofting the Mexsat 1 communications satellite, also known as Centenario, under a contract with the Mexican government.

“The failure happened on the 497th second of the flight, at an altitude of 161 kilometers [100 miles]. The third stage, the booster vehicle and the spacecraft almost completely burned up in the atmosphere. As of now there are no reports of debris reaching the ground,” the agency said in a statement.

Prelaunch view of Russian Proton rocket poised at launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.   Credit: Roscosmos
Prelaunch view of Russian Proton rocket poised at launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Roscosmos

The Breeze-M third stage was to loft Mexsat 1 to its destination in geostationary orbit over 22,000 miles above Earth at 113 degrees west longitude.

The 58.2 m (191 ft) tall Proton rocket is built and operated by Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center and marketed by International Launch Services (ILS).

After reaching an altitude of about 161 km (100 mi) the rocket and Mexsat 1 payload fell back to Earth and burned up over the Chita region of Russia, which is located south west of the Siberian Baikal region, said the Russian News agency TASS.

“The rocket and its payload, a Mexican communication satellite, burned up in the atmosphere,” according to a report by Sputnik International, a Russian News agency.

At this time, local residents have not reported or claimed anything regarding possible debris and there is no information about casualties or destruction, TASS noted.

Mi8 helicopters from Russia’s Emergencies Ministry have been dispatched to the area to look for any debris.

The 5.4 ton Mexsat 1 communication satellite was built by Boeing Satellite Systems International for the Mexican government’s Ministry of Communications and Transportation, the Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes (SCT).

Russian Proton rocket in flight after blast off at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It ended in disaster about eight minutes later with destruction of the rocket and Mexican satellite payload heading to orbit.  Credit: Roscosmos
Russian Proton rocket in flight after blast off at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It ended in disaster about eight minutes later with destruction of the rocket and Mexican satellite payload heading to orbit. Credit: Roscosmos

The Breeze-M failure occurred about 1 minute prior to separation of the third stage from Mexsat 1.

“The emergency situation happened at 08:56 Moscow time, one minute to the scheduled separation of the Breeze-M booster and the Mexican MexSat-1 space apparatus,” TASS reported.

A malfunction with the third stage steering engine may be the cause of the doomed flight.

“A preliminary reason of the accident with Proton is a failure of the steering engines of the third stage,” sources told TASS.

“The analysis of the telemetry allows for supposing that there was a failure in one of the third stage’s steering engines. This is now considered as one of the main reasons.”

Exactly one year ago, another Proton rocket crashed at a similar point when the third stage engines failed during the Proton launch of Russia’s advanced Express-AM4R satellite.

“Khrunichev and International Launch Services (ILS) regret to announce an anomaly during today’s Proton mission,” ILS said in a statement issued after the launch failure.

ILS said an accident investigation board has been appointed to determine the cause of the failure and recommend corrective actions.

“A Russian State Commission has begun the process of determining the reasons for the anomaly. ILS will release details when data becomes available,” said ILS.

They hope to return the workhorse Proton to flight as soon as possible.

“ILS remains committed to providing reliable, timely launch services for all its customers. To this end, ILS will work diligently with its partner Khrunichev to return Proton to flight as soon as possible.”

This was the eleventh failure of the Proton-M rocket or Breeze-M upper stage in 116 launches since the inaugural liftoff in April 2001.

Mexsat 1 had a planned lifetime of 15 years. It was to provide mobile satellite services to support national security, civil and humanitarian efforts and will provide disaster relief, emergency services, telemedicine, rural education, and government agency operations.

Media reports indicate it was insured for about $390 million.

File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos
File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer