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The next flight to mars has departed

14 March 2016

The ExoMars 2016 mission launched at 09:31 GMT (10:31 CET) today from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

ExoMars 2016 liftoff (Credit: ESA)

ExoMars is a joint endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and comprises the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator. 

TGO will make a detailed inventory of Mars’ atmospheric gases, with particular interest in rare gases like methane, which implies that there is an active, current source. TGO aims to measure its geographical and seasonal dependence and help to determine whether it stems from a geological or biological source. 

Meanwhile, Schiaparelli will demonstrate a range of technologies to enable a controlled landing on Mars in preparation for future missions. After a seven-month cruise, the lander will separate from the TGO on 16 October and land on Mars on 19 October, for several days of activities.  

TGO will then enter orbit around the Red Planet ahead of its exciting multiyear science mission. It will also serve as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission, comprising a rover and a surface science platform, planned for launch in 2018. It will also provide data relay for NASA rovers. 

The launch of ExoMars 2016 will mark the start of a new era of Mars exploration for Europe. 

For updates and further information, visit the ESA website

QinetiQ Communications technology to link ExoMars with earth:

Once the ExoMars mission gets there, British communications technology from QinetiQ will link the two worlds.

Sending data between two planets millions of miles apart is no easy task. Matthew Cosby, Chief Communications Engineer at QinetiQ, explains the challenges of achieving such a feat – and the potential rewards in doing so:

“Interplanetary communications equipment needs to be incredibly tough to survive the journey and operate effectively in the inhospitable environments of space and Mars’s surface. To prove it meets the required standard, we put the technology through rigorous test and evaluation programs using our facilities in Farnborough, England.

QinetiQ’s transceiver (Credit: QinetiQ)

Shake and vac

“We simulated landings on Mars in our vacuum chamber, by slowly leaking in gas to replicate the change in pressure when approaching the surface. We used our environmental chambers to test the equipment in extremes of hot and cold. Shock and vibration testing was carried out with Airbus Defence and Space in Portsmouth to make sure the system will survive launch and entry, descent and landing on Mars.

Planetary protection

“It is essential that anything sent to Mars is free from contaminants – the last thing a scientist wants is to ‘discover’ evidence of life, only to realise that it originated from Earth. Equipment can be ‘baked’ at high temperatures for tens of hours to kill microbes, although we chose to build our technology for ExoMars in completely sterile rooms instead. Swabs are then taken and analysed to confirm it meets the program and UN planetary protection requirements.

Power and distance

“Historically, data was sent directly from Mars to Earth at speeds similar to the old dial-up internet – several kilobits per second. The introduction of orbiters like the one being used in the ExoMars mission enable speeds up to two megabits per second over the shorter distance from the surface to the orbiter. The data is stored on the orbiter and then transferred back when the spacecraft sees the dedicated ground station on the Earth. This communication session lasts in the order of eight hours.

The future of interplanetary communications

“Currently the communications sessions are managed by multiple point to point links – Mars to orbit, Mars orbit to Earth. This is organised by using teams of people in space operations rooms on Earth. However, we are moving toward a network-based infrastructure, similar to Earth’s terrestrial systems. These systems are currently being developed and standardised by international space agencies, including the UK. The communications system for ExoMars is developed to these international specifications, allowing it to communicate with multiple orbiters from different agencies. Continued international collaboration will be vital in building a robust network that will one day support human missions.”

For more information, visit the QinetiQ website.

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