Teasing the Galactic Ghoul, Past and Present

Kaboom? An artist's conception of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter separating from the Briz-M upper stage. Credit: ESA

Launch. It’s the part of spaceflight that is always the most fraught with peril, as your precious and delicate scientific package is encapsulated on top of tons of explosives, the fuze is lit, and the whole package hurls spaceward.As noted by Bob King earlier last week on Universe Today, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter underwent just such an ordeal on March 14th, as it broke the surly bonds atop a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and headed towards the Red Planet with the Schiaparelli Lander affixed snug to its side. The spacecraft may have very nearly suffered a disaster that would’ve left it literally dead in space.Don’t worry; the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is OK and safely in a heliocentric orbit now, en route for an orbital insertion around the Red Planet on October 19th, 2016. But our robotic ambassadors haven’t always been so lucky.The Road to the Red PlanetLaunching for Mars is a complex odyssey. Unlike U.S. Mars missions such as MAVEN and Curiosity, which typically launch atop an Atlas V rocket and head directly into solar orbit after launch, Russian Proton rocket launches initially enter a looping elliptical orbit around the Earth, and require a series of successive engine burns to raise the payload’s orbit for a final injection headed to Mars.All was well as the upper stages did their job, four burns were performed, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter phoned home indicating it was in good health afterwards.It’s what happened next that gave planners a start, and is still the source of a minor controversy.While Russian sources tracked the Briz-M upper stage and say it worked as planned, observatories based in the southern hemisphere imaged the departure of ExoMars noted about —> Read More