ExoMars ready to roll atop bloody big rocket

Live Baikonur Proton launch coverage on Monday morning

The European Space Agency (ESA) is gearing up for Monday's launch of its ExoMars mission, which will soar aloft from Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a mighty Proton-M lifter.

ESA will provide live coverage here kicking off at 08:30 GMT, with the launch scheduled for 09:31 GMT.

On board for the ride will be the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli "entry, descent and landing demonstrator module" (EDM), seen here last week during encapsulation at Baikonur:

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

Next stop Mars. Pic: ESA / B. Bethge

Suitably enclosed, the spacecraft were then mated with the Proton-M, as shown in this very fine snap:

Some of the ExoMars team pose with the payload and the Proton rocket. Pic: ESA

Say cheese. Pic: KhSC

The trip to Mars will take seven months. Schiaparelli is scheduled to detach from the TGO on 16 October, three days before arrival. While the latter will manoeuvre into orbit at an altitude of 400km, the former will descend to the Martian surface, slowed sequentially by parachute, hydrazine thrusters, and a "crushable structure" designed to absorb the force of the final impact. ESA has a graphic of the descent sequence here.

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

Schiaparelli bids adios to the TGO. Pic: ESA/ D. Ducros

Aloft, meanwhile, the TGO's four instruments 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". They'll also carry out surface imaging and map "shallow subsurface water ice" to a depth of one metre.

ESA is planing a second ExoMars mission in 2018, which "includes a rover that will carry a drill and a suite of instruments dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry research". ®

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