After more than twelve hours of nail-biting anticipation, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars probe has finally phoned home, confirming that this morning’s launch was a complete success. The mission is now safely on its way to Mars.
ExoMars is an ambitious new endeavor to hunt for signs of alien life on the Red Planet, managed jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos. The mission’s 2016 phase includes a Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that’ll search for methane and other compounds of possible biological origin in Mars’ lower atmosphere, and a Schiaparelli entry, descent, and landing module, which will demonstrate complex landing technology for a larger, ground-based ExoMars rover slated to ship off in 2018.
The Russin Proton rocket bearing the two spacecraft launched bright and early this morning, at 5:31 am EDT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But it took 12 hours to complete the complex series of orbital maneuvers needed to boost ExoMars out of Earth’s gravity well. After the Proton’s first, second, and third stage separated, a Breeze-M upper stage performed four engine burns throughout the course of the afternoon and evening. Shortly after the fourth burn, ExoMars separated from Breeze-M and deployed its solar panels. And moments ago, the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany received the TGO’s phone call, confirming that the maneuvers were successful.
Neither the ESA nor Roscosmos has the best track record when it comes to Martian missions, and for now, both space agencies are breathing a huge sigh of relief. But it’ll take another seven months for ExoMars to reach the Red Planet, and from there, we’ve got another year until the TGO begins collecting scientific data. Plenty of hurdles remain before ExoMars can be called a true success—but at least for now, it’s headed in the right direction.
To celebrate today’s spaceflight victory, here are a few beautiful photos of the launch, taken in Kazakhstan this morning: