After NASA Backs Out, Russia’s Proton Lofts ExoMars to the Red Planet (Update)

Liftoff of Proton Booster Carrying ESA's ExoMars Mission Credit : ESA

Liftoff of Proton Booster Carrying ESA’s ExoMars Mission
Credit : ESA


Europe’s Exo-Mars mission is successfully on its way to the Red Planet following successful completion of all four burns of the Briz-M and stage separation which took place at 20:13 GMT. At 21:29 GMT, ESA’s control center in Darmstadt, Germany received signal confirmation that spacecraft is in good health and the solar wings have unfolded.

Original story:

It has been a long and tortuous journey, but first two components of the European Space Agency’s segmented Exo-Mars mission blasted off aboard a Russian Proton Briz-M booster from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early this morning. Liftoff took place on time at 9:31 GMT. Disappearing quickly into an overcast sky, the Proton, which has seen a number of failures in recent years, successfully completed the first phase of its mission, dropping the Mars bound payload and Briz-M upper stage into an initial elliptical orbit. As of 11:27 GMT, the Flight Director confirmed the Briz-M had completed the second of the four burns are required to sent the spacecraft on its way. The overall purpose of ExoMars, as its name suggests, is to search for “exobiology,” signs of life on the Red Planet.

Today’s launch consisted of two components; an orbiter and lander, which together massed 4,332 kg including propellant. The first element is the Mars Trace Gas orbiter, which has been built to closely examine the Red Planet’s atmosphere for emissions of methane, as well as other gases which fall into the “trace” category, present in quantities less than 1% of a planet’s atmosphere. Altogether it carries four instrumentation packages:

Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS); Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS); Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND); Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery (NOMAD)

ACS and NOMAD comprise three spectrometers each and are designed to cover complementary wavelengths in order to perform a detailed, seasonal inventory of Mars’ atmospheric trace gases and to create detailed atmospheric models.

(History records the NOMAD package, after some interesting modifications, will foolishly be beamed aboard the Starship Enterprise in a couple of hundred years.)

CaSSIS will then be used to image surface features which may be the source of gas emissions. FREND will be used to map subsurface hydrogen to a depth of one meter, with the goal of revealing water ice deposits, as well as possible sources of methane and other trace gases.
ExoMars also contains a radio package provided by NASA which will be used to strengthen the overall Mars communication network, providing relay services between Earth and rovers on the surface, including Opportunity and Curiosity.

Investigating methane is at the heart of the mission however, as its detection can be considered a sign of possible microbial life at work on Mars. Unlike the search for signs of ancient life from an era when Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today, methane detection is important because the gas cannot remain in atmosphere for extended periods of time due to being broken down by radiation. While geological processes are also a possible explanation for such emissions, targeting their specific location and seasonal occurrence is a critical step in pinpointing where to look, and to dig, on future missions.

That is where Schiaparelli, the Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator package comes into play. The 600 kg lander represents Europe’s efforts to develop an indigenous Mars landing capability which would be put to the test on the second segment of the ExoMars Mission; a rover and base station which will launch in 2018, or more likely during the 2020 launch window. Somewhat surprisingly, Schiaparelli does not include solar panels, meaning its lifetime, even if it survives the harrowing ordeal of EDL, will only last a few days until its batteries run out.

Schiaparelli contains four instruments; DREAMS, a meteorological station, AMELIA, which will analyze the Martian atmosphere during the descent, as well as DECA, a camera which will take 15 monochrome images during the descent to provide engineering data and to aid with final targeting of the landing zone. In yet another curious departure from what many have come to expect as standard equipment on Mars landing missions, there are no provisions for taking images from the planet’s surface. But in case someone wants to take a picture of Schiaparelli sitting on the surface, the final instrument is INRRI,  an array of laser reflectors reflectors to aid in finding the lander from orbit.

The backstory to today’s launch is one which is getting very little mention in the general press and none from the European Space Agency, but it is importance nonetheless. ExoMars was originally a U.S./European partnership. It fell apart when NASA backed out, specifically citing the rising costs of the ULA Atlas V booster as one of the reasons it could no longer afford to participate in the mission. Russia, with its very spotty record on performing Mars missions and a series of recent mishaps with the Proton booster and Briz upper stage, was brought in at the last minute as an act of desperation to avoid cancelling ExoMars altogether.

That is why mission controllers will breathe a very deep sigh of relief when the spacecraft package is finally separated from the upper stage, and left to determine its own fate.

It is also another reminder of why launch costs matter.

Key Mission Timeline Events:

Mid-course correction: 28 July
Schiaparelli–TGO separation:16 October 2016
TGO manoeuvre: 17 October 2016
Orbiter insertion into Mars orbit:19 October 2016
Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing: 19 October 2016
Aerobraking: January–November 2017
Science phase begins: December 2017

The complete mission press kit is here (pdf)



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2 Comments on "After NASA Backs Out, Russia’s Proton Lofts ExoMars to the Red Planet (Update)"

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  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    ExoMars was originally a U.S./European partnership. It fell apart when NASA backed out, specifically citing the rising costs of the ULA Atlas V booster as one of the reasons it could no longer afford to participate in the mission.

    Stewart, this is the first time I’ve seen it stated that the NASA cancellation was due to the rising Atlas costs. At the time (Feb. 12), people like Bill Harwood and John Logsdon were pointing the figure at James Webb. The link you cited doesn’t give that data.

    Dave Huntsman

  2. Stewart Money says:


    You’re right. I have updated the story to include an article from Space News in 2011 that references the launch costs. It was also directly addressed in a NASA Science Advisory Committee meeting around the same time where the rising cost of Atlas V were specifically cited.
    I will post that if I can find it.


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