ExoMars mission thunders aloft from Baikonur

Next stop: the Red Planet

The Proton-M lifts off today. Pic: ESA / Stephane Corvaja

The European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars mission roared aloft from Baikonur Cosmodrome this morning atop a Proton-M rocket.

The Proton-M being raised into a vertical position. Pic: ESA / B. Bethge

Going vertical: The Proton-M being raised for launch last week. Pic: ESA / B. Bethge

The lifter - carrying the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli "entry, descent and landing demonstrator module" (EDM) - departed the pad at 09:31 GMT.

ExoMars is still attached to the restartable Briz-M (Breeze) upper stage, which will perform a series of motor burns to accelerate the spacecraft and finally send it on its way later tonight at 33,000 km/h.

ESA will have live vid coverage here starting at 21:10 GMT of the expected first signal acquisition and there are text updates here.

The encapsulation of the ExoMars payload in its fairing last week. Pic: ESA / B. Bethge

The TGO and Schiaparelli during encapsulation at Baikonur. Pic: ESA / B. Bethge

ExoMars will take seven months to reach its destination. Once in orbit around the Red Plant, the TGO will help "gain a better understanding of methane and other atmospheric gases that are present in small concentrations (less than 1 per cent of the atmosphere) but nevertheless could be evidence for possible biological or geological activity". It'll also sniff for "shallow subsurface water ice" to a depth of one metre.

 Schiaparelli separating from Trace Gas Orbiter. Pic: ESA–D. Ducros

Schiaparelli separates from the TGO ahead of its descent to the Martian surface. Pic: ESA/ D. Ducros

Schiaparelli will descend to the Martian surface, slowed sequentially by parachute, hydrazine thrusters, and a crushable structure intended to absorb the force of the final impact. ESA has a graphic of the descent sequence here.

Part of Schiaparelli's job is to act as a surface pathfinder for a second ExoMars mission in 2018, which will include a rover packing "a drill and a suite of instruments dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry research". The TGO will continue in service as a comms relay.®

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