March 14, 2016: The European Space Agency ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos had planned to launch the first ExoMars payload towards Mars. ESA had invited 25 social media reporters to the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany – we (my mission director @SpaceHolgar and myself) are among the selected lucky ones. Even better, we had the privilege to report for the organization „The Mars Generation“ founded by the inspiring aspiring astronaut Abigail Harrison – using the hashtag #marsgen.
We were arriving at the entrance gate two hours before the planned launch time: 9:31 a.m. GMT. After reserving a nice seat (and a podest for me) we had the time to familiarize us with the stars of the day – the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander demonstrator.
The event started about one hour before the planned liftoff time. About 500 guests were following the event – among them several scientist that had built the scientific instruments for both spacecrafts. The stage show started with an introduction to the ExoMars mission and some statements of top ESA managers and – among them the former German astronaut Thomas Reiter, the ESA Senior Science Advisor Mark McCaughrean, the ExoMars Project Scientist Jorge Vago, the Chairwoman of the Board of the German Aerospace Centre Pascale Ehrenfreund and my friend and Mars500 participant Diego Urbina.
Then it was about time for the launch. The weather at the Russian launch base Baikonur in Kazakhstan was quite poor with heavy overcast. No problem for a Russian launcher – as we know they can launch even in a snow storm. Thus the Proton launcher with the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander lifted off as planned. Unfortunately the quality of the liftoff video was very poor – probably due to the bad weather.
The Proton launcher was flying in a four-stage configuration – with a Briz-M upper stage. The first burn of this upper stage – 4 minutes long – was bringing the ExoMars payload to a parking orbit 16 minutes after liftoff. This initial launch phase was well commented on stage – by Michael Khan – ESA Mission Analyst.
A break of the event was following. It was time to meet friends and to do interviews. I will report about this in a future blog post as I was meeting a lot of interesting people.
The event was continued with sessions where ESA experts and scientists were explaining several interesting topics related to this launch and the entire ExoMars program. Here are the topics of the sessions:
- Orbital Mechanics and the journey to Mars – with Michael Khan, ESA
- Science on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter TGO – with the scientists Daniil Rodionov, Manish Patel & Gabriele Cremonese
- The ExoMars Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM) – with Olivier Bayle, ESA EDM System Engineer
- Shaping ExoMars 2016 and 2018 – with Rolf de Groot, Coordinator Robotic Exploration, ESA
- The scientific search for life with ExoMars- with Jorge Vago, ESA
- Science on the ExoMars Schiaparelli EDM lander – with the scientists Simone Silvestro & Carlo Bettani
After the specialists were giving their talks the audience was permitted to ask question. Later on a the experts were also answering questions on Twitter. The questions were sent in with the hashtag #askESA. One of my questions (This one asked in German language, sorry – Translation: How long is/was the launch window for this launch?) was answered, too. Here is the tweeted video answer by Michael Khan – in English:
During all the sessions and Q&As we were regularly updated about the status of the launch. The Briz-M upper stage had to complete four different burns including a jettison of an empty fuel tank between burn 3 & 4 to shed some unnecessary weight. All these burns of the upper stage were successful and shortly after the end of the fourth burn it was confirmed that the ExoMars payload was on the correct trajectory.
The next very important step was the separation of the ExoMars stack from the upper stage. This was an automatic process supposed to happen just after the Russian ground station had lost contact with the stage. Actually the contact was enduring a bit longer than expected and in this way the successful separation of the ExoMars spacecraft was confirmed earlier than expected less than 11 hours after the launch. Here is my live tweet for this important separation event:
After the separation the Trace Gas Orbiter was programmed to initialize an automatic sequence to begin its operations to be prepared for the first contact with an ESA ground station. Around this event ESA had planned another stage show. The Senior Science Advisor of ESA, Mark McCaughran, gave a presentation explaining the motivation why we fly to Mars. Another presentation was giving by Carlo Cassi about the role of the European industry in the ExoMars project.
Then it was about time for establishing the first contact between the Trace Gas Orbiter and the ground station. This is called Acquisition of Signal (AOS) and was quite important as it would show that the spacecraft is in good shape. At the planned time about 12 hours after the liftoff the following happened – a watched by myself:
The contact was successfully established! What a great moment for ESA and Roscosmos – and the entire space community! We have another mission on the way to Mars! As the mission will participate in the search for life on Mars it is another important step for humankind on the #JourneyToMars. My enthusiastic tweet was the following:
The image was actually taken a bit after the AOS happened. The ESA Senior Science Advisor Mark McCaughrean was a bit emotional here. Please turn up the volume:
Some other official statements were given, for instance by ESA DG Jan Woerner phoning from Moscow where he was celebrating with the Russian partners.
Then the celebrations did begun. Interested the relive this emotional AOS stage show ? I have recorded the entire show for you. Enjoy! Here you can find the VIDEO:
Many thanks for reading! More about this fantastic event to come – here in my blog!
Part II of my ExoMars launch coverage:
P.S.: Diesen Artikel gibt es auch in deutscher Sprache: