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Europe’s ExoMars orbiter smoothly cruising toward red planet

Artist's concept of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander in cruise configuration for the flight from Earth to Mars. Credit: ESA–David Ducros
Artist’s concept of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander in cruise configuration for the flight from Earth to Mars. Credit: ESA–David Ducros

Ground controllers are running Europe’s ExoMars orbiter through a post-launch checkup a week after its successful liftoff aboard a Proton rocket, and a first look at the probe’s systems revealed no problems, the mission’s flight director said Tuesday.

“We’ve been switching on and testing all the systems, including redundant components in certain areas, the antenna, the attitude control system,” said Michel Denis, ExoMars flight director at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany. “We have done a test maneuver, which was very accurate. It looks good for the commissioning, so far, from the small fraction of it.”

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander are due to arrive at Mars on Oct. 19, the first European Space Agency mission to the red planet since 2003. The craft are making the interplanetary cruise as one, making the combined probe one of the largest ever sent to Mars.

The mission blasted off March 14 on top of a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Proton booster’s Breeze M upper stage deployed the ExoMars spacecraft nearly 11 hours after launch, following a set of four maneuvers to guide the Mars probe away from Earth.

The launch was right on target, Denis said Tuesday.

“From the information we obtained from tracking, the error from injection was 1.5 meters per second (3.4 mph), so extremely small,” Denis said.

The Proton/Breeze M accelerated the 4,335-kilogram (9,557-pound) spacecraft to a velocity of 33,001 kilometers per hour (20,505 mph) relative to Earth, according to ESA.

An apparent explosion of the Breeze M upper stage after it parted ways from the ExoMars should have no impact on the spacecraft, according to Denis.

Debris from the Breeze M upper stage that helped launch ExoMars is seen in this imagery from a Brazilian observatory. Astronomers imaged the ExoMars spacecraft on departure from Earth to practice techniques for detecting asteroids on a collision course with Earth, which follow similar trajectories but in opposite directions. Credit: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva
Debris from the Breeze M upper stage that helped launch ExoMars is seen in this imagery from a Brazilian observatory. Astronomers imaged the ExoMars spacecraft on departure from Earth to practice techniques for detecting asteroids on a collision course with Earth, which follow similar trajectories but in opposite directions. Credit: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva

A report published on the website of Popular Mechanics magazine indicated the Breeze M stage apparently broke apart after releasing ExoMars. The upper stage, which burns a mixture of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants, was supposed to ignite its main engine after the separation of the ExoMars orbiter to veer on a different trajectory from the Mars-bound spacecraft.

Imagery obtained late March 14 from OASI Observatory in Brazil, and released by ESA three days later, appears to show at least nine fragments from the Breeze M rocket stage speeding through space.

While ESA initially said the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter appeared in the imagery, officials on Wednesday updated the caption to the animated image posted above.

“Following additional analysis by teams at ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Center, it has become clear that TGO is in fact not in this image — it was already further ahead and beyond the frame,” officials wrote on the agency’s website. “Thus all of the moving objects in this image are related to the Breeze M.”

The Breeze M should have been in two pieces after the launch — the rocket stage’s main body and a detachable fuel tank.

Denis told Spaceflight Now that ExoMars managers in Europe have received no information on the potential explosion from Russian launch authorities.

Popular Mechanics reported the ExoMars orbiter could have been damaged by the explosion, and further checks of the craft’s science instruments are needed to ensure the probe has no ill effects from the anomaly. While the ExoMars spacecraft and the Breeze M were still relatively close, the distance was large enough to ensure there is “no risk at all” to the Mars mission, Denis said.

“If it’s true, and if it’s true that this explosion took place a couple of hours after separation, then the separation (between ExoMars and the Breeze M) was huge — many kilometers — so there is no risk at all,” Denis said. “We definitely have not seen anything on the spacecraft with dynamics. Of course, we don’t have pictures, but if this explosion had taken place shortly after separation, there might have been an impact, and the spacecraft might have seen something anomalous near it, but we didn’t see anything.”

The ExoMars 2016 mission blasts off aboard a Proton rocket March 14. Credit: Roscosmos
The ExoMars 2016 mission blasts off aboard a Proton rocket March 14. Credit: Roscosmos

Engineers at the ExoMars control center in Germany finished an initial round of activation and tests of the Mars-bound spacecraft March 17. The next day, controllers commenced with commissioning — a set of thorough systems checks — to verify the probe is fully functional.

The orbiter’s 2.2-meter (7.2-foot) steerable high-gain antenna has been deployed and pointed along each axis, Denis said.

“I think we have explored, more or less, all the range,” Denis said. “It is not yet used for communications with the Earth because we are still too close, but this will be done one week from now.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Europe’s ExoMars orbiter smoothly cruising toward red planet

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