ESA's ExoMars TGO Soars Toward Mars with Help from Russia Instead of NASA

ESA's ExoMars TGO Soars Toward Mars with Help from Russia Instead of NASA

The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft soared into space today atop a Russian Proton rocket.  Russia replaced the United States as ESA’s partner in the ExoMars program after the Obama Administration cut NASA’s planetary science budget in 2012.

ESA’s ExoMars program involves two spacecraft — the TGO mission launched today and a rover currently scheduled for launch in 2018.

TGO is a Mars orbiter that will study rare gases in the Mars atmosphere, especially methane, which on Earth indicates geological or biological processes.  It will also image features on the Martian surface that may be related to trace-gas sources, such as volcanoes, and can detect buried water-ice deposits that may be of interest for future landing missions.

Attached to the orbiter is the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) demonstrator. The two will travel to Mars together over the next 7 months.  Schiaparelli will detach from TGO three days before Mars arrival.  While TGO enters Mars orbit, Schiaparelli will enter the Mars atmosphere and land on the surface to demonstrate technologies needed for the second phase of the ExoMars program — the 2018 rover.

ESA originally was teamed with NASA on a program to send a series of probes to Mars, beginning with ExoMars and continuing into the early 2020s, with the goal of returning samples of Mars to Earth.  NASA and ESA signed a cooperative agreement in 2009 stating their intent to cooperate, but it was not a firm commitment and in 2012 the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decided that the United States could not commit to a long term series of technically challenging, expensive “flagship” Mars missions.  NASA was forced to withdraw from its agreement with ESA.  The decision was part of the FY2013 budget process, which included the threat of sequestration. Congressional outcry led NASA to restore money for Mars exploration and creation of the Mars 2020 mission using leftover hardware from the Mars Curiosity rover. NASA later chose another Mars mission, InSight, to launch this year as part of its Discovery program, but that launch has been postponed to 2018 because of problems with one of the scientific instruments.

Meanwhile, ESA found a new partner — Russia’s Roscosmos — for ExoMars.  Russia launched ESA’s first Mars orbiter, Mars Express, in 2003.  That launch, like the one today, went flawlessly.  Mars Express continues to operate in Mars orbit, along with three U.S. orbiters (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).   In addition to their primary missions of studying the Martian surface, MRO, Odyssey and MAVEN serve as communications relays between Earth and NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the Martian surface.   Schiaparelli will also need a communications relay as will NASA’s Mars 2020 and future Mars landers and rover.

ExoMars TGO is carrying two U.S. Electra radios to provide data relay, the one portion of the ESA-NASA ExoMars TGO cooperation that survived.  (NASA also is still involved in ESA’s 2018 rover mission, although not to the extent originally envisioned.  It will provide a mass spectrometer and electronic components for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer-MOMA.)

ExoMars TGO lifted off from the Baikour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:31 am Eastern Daylight Time (09:31 GMT) on a Proton rocket with a Briz-M upper stage.  After four firings of the Briz-M over 10 hours, ExoMars TGO was enroute to Mars with all systems operating nominally.

Artist’s impression of ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter with Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator (on right).  Image credit:  ESA/ATG Medialab

Russia has had limited success with its own robotic Mars exploration program.  Its last Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, never left Earth orbit and reentered in January 2012, two months after launch. A previous probe, Mars-96, suffered a similar fate.  Other Soviet/Russian Mars probes launched since the 1960s failed partially or completely.  None of its attempts to land on the surface of Mars were successful.  The Proton rocket or its upper stages also have suffered a series of failures in recent years.

Today, however, offered only good news.  The Proton rocket and Briz-M upper stage performed exactly as planned.   ESA Director General Jan Woerner said “I am grateful to our Russian partner, who have given this mission the best possible start today. Now we will explore Mars together.”  Igor Komarov, General Director of the Roscosmos State Space Corporation added that “Only the process of collaboration produces the best technical solutions for great research results. Roscosmos and ESA are confident of the mission’s success.”

ExoMars TGO will reach Mars in October 2016.  Schiaparelli will detach from TGO on October 16 at a distance of 900,000 kilometers from the planet, and land on Mars on October 19, the same day TGO enters orbit.  Parachutes and thrusters will slow Schiaparelli to a speed of a few meters per second.  The module’s “crumple-zone” construction will absorb the impact with the surface.  The entire EDL sequence takes 6 minutes.

ESA’s Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) demonstrator sequence.   Credit:  ESA.

This will be ESA’s second attempt to land on Mars. The Mars Express orbiter also carried a landing demonstrator — the United Kingdom’s Beagle 2.   It separated from Mars Express, but no signals were obtained after the expected landing.   Beagle 2’s fate remained a mystery until January 2015 when NASA’s MRO spotted it on the Martian surface.  Apparently the solar panels did not unfurl properly and the radio antenna was blocked, preventing communications.

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