Weekly Space Hangout – October 14, 2016: Sally Ride EarthKAM project

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Guests: Tyler Finlay of the Sally Ride EarthKAM project Guests: Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg) Their stories this week: Two trillion galaxies? Obama reaffirms NASA’s Mars plan ExoMars arrives in the coming week CosmoQuest Survey for Citizen Scientists – how can we make citizen science more available? CosmoQuest Survey […]

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We Land on Mars in Just 5 Days!

Watch how Schiaparelli will land on Mars Cross your fingers for good weather on the Red Planet on October 19. That’s the day the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander pops open its parachute, fires nine, liquid-fueled thrusters and descends to the surface of Mars. Assuming fair weather, the lander should settle down safely on the wide-open plains of Meridiani […]

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Spectacular Panoramas from Curiosity Reveal Layered Martian Rock Formations Like America’s Desert Southwest

Spectacular wide angle mosaic view showing sloping buttes and layered outcrops within of the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. This photo mosaic is stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 9, 2016 with added artificial sky.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The most stunning panoramic vistas likely ever snapped by NASA’s Curiosity rover reveal spectacularly layered Martian rock formations in such exquisite detail that they look and feel just like America’s desert Southwest landscapes. They were just captured a week ago and look like a scene straight out of the hugely popular science fiction movie ‘The Martian’ – only they are real !!

Indeed several magnificent panoramas were taken by Curiosity in just the past week and you can see our newly stitched mosaic versions of some – above and below.

The rock formations lie in the “Murray Buttes” region of lower Mount Sharp where Curiosity has been exploring for roughly the past month. She just finished a campaign of detailed science observations and is set to bore a new sampling hole into the Red Planet, as you read this.

While scouting around the “Murray Buttes,” the SUV sized rover captured thousands of color and black and white raw images to document the geology of this thus far most unrivaled spot on the Red Planet ever visited by an emissary from Earth.

So the image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has begun stitching together wide angle mosaic views starting with images gathered by the high resolution mast mounted Mastcam right color camera, or M-100, on Sept, 8, 2016, or Sol 1454 of the robots operations on Mars.

The mosaics give context and show us exactly what the incredible alien surroundings look like where the six wheeled rover is exploring today.

The imagery of the Murray Buttes and mesas show them to be eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed.

Scanning around the Murray Buttes mosaics one sees finely layered rocks, sloping hillsides, the distant rim of Gale Crater barely visible through the dusty haze, dramatic hillside outcrops with sandstone layers exhibiting cross-bedding. The presence of “cross-bedding” indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes, says the team.

But there is no time to rest as she was commanded to head further south to the last of these Murray Buttes. And right now the team is implementing a plan for Curiosity to drill a new hole in Mars today – at a target named “Quela” at the base of the last of the buttes. The rover approached the butte from the south side a few days ago to get in place and plan for the drilling, take imagery to document stratigraphy and make compositional observations with the ChemCam laser instrument.

“It’s always an exciting day on Mars when you prepare to drill another sample – an engineering feat that we’ve become so accustomed to that I sometimes forget how impressive this really is!” wrote Lauren Edgar, in a mission update today. Edgar is a Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the MSL science team.

Curiosity will then continue further south to begin exploring higher and higher sedimentary layers up Mount Sharp. The “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Meanwhile Curiosity is still conducting science observations of the last drill sample gathered from the “Marimba” target in August focusing on MAHLI and APXS examination of the dump pile leftovers from the sieved sample. She just completed chemical analysis of the sieved sample using the miniaturized SAM and CheMin internal chemistry laboratories.

It’s interesting to note that although the buttes are striking, their height also presents communications issues by blocking radio signals with NASA’s orbiting relay satellites. NASA’s Opportunity rover faced the same issues earlier this year while exploring inside the high walled Marathon Valley along Ecdeavour Crater.

“While the buttes are beautiful, they pose a challenge to communications, because they are partially occluding communications between the rover and the satellites we use to relay data (MRO and ODY), so sometimes the data volume that we can relay is pretty low” wrote Edgar.

“But it’s a small price to pay for the great stratigraphic exposures and gorgeous view!”

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

Three years ago, the team informally named the Murray Buttes site to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

As of today, Sol 1461, September 15, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 353,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Curiosity Rover Captures Full-Circle Panorama of Enticing ‘Murray Buttes’ on Mars

This 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called "Murray Buttes" on lower Mount Sharp.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Four years after a nail biting touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA’s SUV-sized Curiosity rover is at last nearing the long strived for “Murray Buttes” formation on the lower reaches of Mount Sharp.

This is a key milestone for the Curiosity mission because the “Murray Buttes” are the entry way along Curiosity’s planned route up lower Mount Sharp.

Ascending Mount Sharp is the primary goal of the mission.

The area features eroded mesas and buttes that are reminiscent of the U.S. Southwest.

So the team directed the rover to capture a 360-degree color panorama using the robots mast mounted Mastcam camera earlier this month on Aug. 5.

The full panorama shown above combines more than 130 images taken by Curiosity on Aug. 5, 2016, during the afternoon of Sol 1421 by the Mastcam’s left-eye camera.

In particular note the dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm. It stands about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

Coincidentally, Aug. 5 also marks the fourth anniversary of the six wheel rovers landing on the Red Planet via the unprecedented Sky Crane maneuver.

You can explore this spectacular Mars panorama in great detail via this specially produced 360-degree panorama from JPL. Simply move the magnificent view back and forth and up and down and all around with your mouse or mobile device.

https://youtu.be/UUweNrpFTwA?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZqsp7on1ErHOTweF5eHzOTt

Video Caption: This 360-degree panorama was acquired on Aug. 5, 2016, by the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. The dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover’s arm is about 50 feet (about 15 meters) high and, near the top, about 200 feet (about 60 meters) wide.

“The buttes and mesas are capped with rock that is relatively resistant to wind erosion. This helps preserve these monumental remnants of a layer that formerly more fully covered the underlying layer that the rover is now driving on,” say rover scientists.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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ExoMars 2018 Rover Postponed to 2020 Launch

ESA Exomars rover launch has been rescheduled to launch two years later in 2020.  Credit:ESA

Liftoff of the ExoMars 2018 rover mission currently under development jointly by Europe and Russia has just been postponed for two years to 2020, according to an announcement today, May 2, from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

The delay was forced by a variety of technical and funding issues that ate up the schedule margin to enable a successful outcome.

“Taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution,” ESA explained in a statement today.

The ambitious ExoMars rover is the second of two joint Euro-Russian missions to explore the Red Planet.

The first mission known as ExoMars 2016 was successfully launched last month from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton-M rocket on March 14.

The renamed ExoMars 2020 mission involves a European-led rover and a Russian-led surface platform and is also slated to blastoff on an Russian Proton rocket.

Roscosmos and ESA jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020. The costs associated with the delay are not known.

The delay means that the Euro-Russian rover mission will launch the same year as NASA’s 2020 rover.

The rover is being built by prime contractor Airbus Defense and Space in Stevenage, England.

The descent module and surface science package are provided by Roscosmos with some contributions by ESA.

Recognizing the potential for a delay, ESA and Roscosmos set up a tiger team in late 2015 to assess the best options.

“Russian and European experts made their best efforts to meet the 2018 launch schedule for the mission, and in late 2015, a dedicated ESA-Roscosmos Tiger Team, also including Russian and European industries, initiated an analysis of all possible solutions to recover schedule delays and accommodate schedule contingencies,” said ESA in the statement.

The tiger team reported their results to ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner and Roscosmos Director General Igor Komarov.

Woerner and Komarov then “jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020, and tasked their project teams to develop, in cooperation with the industrial contactors, a new baseline schedule aiming towards a 2020 launch. Additional measures will also be taken to maintain close control over the activities on both sides up to launch.”

The ExoMars 2016 interplanetary mission is comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander. The spacecraft are due to arrive at Mars in October 2016.

The goal of TGO is to search for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.

The now planned 2020 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters (seven feet) where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2020 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.

ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Into the Red: Our Complete Guide to Mars Opposition 2016

Mars 2014

Ready to explore the Red Planet? Starting in May, Mars invades the evening skies of the Earth, as it heads towards opposition on May 22nd. Not only does this place Mars front and center for prime time viewing, but we’re headed towards a cycle of favorable oppositions, with Mars near perihelion, while Earth is near aphelion.

As the name implies, Mars rises opposite to the setting Sun near opposition for us terrestrial-bound observers. The technical time of opposition — when a planet reaches a point near 180 degrees opposite to the Sun in right ascension — is, like a Full Moon, an instantaneous moment. For Mars, that moment occurs at around 10:00 Universal Time (UT) on Sunday, May 22nd. Mars makes its closest pass to the Earth eight days later on May 30th, at 75.3 million kilometers distant. This discrepancy is due to the elliptical nature of planetary orbits, as Mars races towards perihelion on October 29th, 2016, while Earth heads towards aphelion on July 4th, 2016.

Not all oppositions of Mars are created equal. Mars orbits the Sun once every 687 days, and Earth catches up to Mars about once every 26 months. Mars has a markedly eccentric orbit deviating 0.093 (9.3%) from circular, meaning it can pass anywhere from 54 million to 103 million kilometers from the Earth. The oppositions of Mars follow a roughly 15 year period from one favorable cycle to the next.

Opposition 2016 favors the southern hemisphere, as the retrograde loop of Mars crosses from the constellations Ophiuchus, through Scorpius into Libra and back into Scorpius this summer. Though that keeps Mars down around declination -22 degrees south, observers located at 40 degrees north will still see Mars transit about 28 degrees above the southern horizon around local midnight near opposition. Mars will appear 18.6″ in size at closest approach, the largest we’ve seen since 2005. The 2014 opposition only reached 15.2”, and the next one on July 27th, 2018 approaches the historic 2003 opposition within an arc second, featuring Mars as a 24.3” disk.

Just over a century ago, oppositions of Mars were a time of frenzied activity, as observers strained to catch fleeting moments of good seeing when details jumped out in crisp relief. Asaph Hall discovered the two tiny moons of Phobos and Deimos using the US Naval Observatory’s 26″ refractor during the opposition of 1877. In 1894, astronomer Percival Lowell stunned the world during opposition with reports of canals on Mars, representing what Lowell was convinced was a massive construction project undertaken by a dying alien race.

Today, the months leading up to opposition represents an optimal time to send spacecraft to the Red Planet. In 2016, only the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter seeks to make the trip.

Though often termed ‘the Red Planet,’ Mars can take on a visual hue spanning pumpkin orange to a sickly yellow, hinting that a planetary wide dust storm is underway. What color does Mars appear to you tonight? A painter’s wheel or color swatches ranging from yellow, red and orange are useful for coming up with colorful descriptors at the eyepiece. May sees the northern polar cap of Mars tipped Earthward, as late northern hemisphere summer is currently underway.

Mars starts off the month of May rivaling Jupiter (which passed opposition on March 8th) at magnitude -1.5. The planet then reaches a brilliant magnitude -2.1 on the night of opposition, and doesn’t drop back down below magnitude -1 until June 28th. Interestingly, Mars is also in the general vicinity of ruddy-orange Antares in 2016, the original +1 magnitude ‘anti-Mars’ of yore. Mars also passes one degree from Delta Scorpii on May 19th.

At the eyepiece, the first surface feature you’ll notice at low power is the white dot of the northern polar cap. Crank up the magnification, and dark and light surface features will begin to pop into view. Mars rotates once on its axis every 24 hours and 37 minutes, meaning you’ll see about 7.5 degrees of new longitude revealed to you if you’re watching at the same time each night. Sky and Telescope’s Mars Profiler is an excellent resource to peg a name on just what surface features are currently turned Earthward.

Sketching what you see on Mars is also fun, and can serve to sharpen your visual skills as well. Constructing a modified webcam to image the planet is also an easy project. If you’ve got a webcam, a telescope and a laptop, you can be off and imaging Mars tonight. Several free autostacking programs exist which allow you to select and stack images from a video sequence, the most time honored being Registax.

We’ve modified 20$ webcams for use at the eyepiece by simply removing the lens and attaching a 1 1/12” eyepiece barrel to the front, effectively making the telescope its ‘lens’. Smartphone astrophotography is reaching the point where planetary imaging is possible.

Stalking the Moons of Barsoom

Opposition is also a great time to cross the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos off of your life list. Phobos and Deimos both shine at magnitude +12 and neither would present much of a problem, were it not for the glare of nearby Mars at 14 magnitudes and 400,000 times brighter. Phobos and Deimos never stray more than 18” and 54” from the limb of Mars, respectively.

Phobos orbits Mars once every 7.7 hours, and Deimos takes 30.4 hours to complete one circuit of the Red Planet. A great tool to know just when a particular moon is at greatest elongation is a desktop planetarium program such as Stellarium or Starry Night. Use SETI’s Ring-Moon Systems Node tool to generate a handy ‘corkscrew chart’ of the Martian moons.

You’ll need to either put Mars just out of the field of view to spy the planet’s moons, or use an occulting bar eyepiece to block its glare. A tiny strip of foil attached to an eyepiece will do the job.

Finally: Ever seen Mars… in the daytime? We completed this unusual feat of visual athletics with binoculars back in 2005, using the nearby Moon as a guide. Fast forward to 2016, and the waning Moon one day past Full passes seven degrees from Mars… on the night of opposition. Southern hemisphere viewers have the best shot at this on the morning of May 22nd, as Mars and the Moon set to the west, just after the Sun rises in the east.

This opposition 2016 ushers in the start of a series of great passes over the next few years, climaxing in 2018. Don’t miss it!

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ExoMars Takes First Hi-Res Image With The Lens Cap On

The first image from the ExoMars craft. Behold the glory of space! Image: ESA/Roscosmos

It doesn’t exactly qualify as eye candy, but the first image from the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars spacecraft is beautiful to behold in its own way. For most of us, a picture like this would mean something went horribly wrong with our camera. But as the first image from the spacecraft, it tells us that the camera and its pointing system are functioning properly.

ExoMars is a joint project between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s an ambitious project, and consists of 2 separate launches. On March 14, 2016, the first launch took place, consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the stationary test lander called Schiaparelli, which will be delivered by the Martian surface by the TGO.

TGO will investigate methane sources on Mars, and act as a communications satellite for the lander. The test lander is trying out new landing technologies, which will help with the second launch, in 2020, when a mobile rover will be launched and landed on the Martian surface.

So far, all systems are go on the ExoMars craft during its voyage. “All systems have been activated and checked out, including power, communications, startrackers, guidance and navigation, all payloads and Schiaparelli, while the flight control team have become more comfortable operating this new and sophisticated spacecraft,” says Peter Schmitz, ESA’s Spacecraft Operations Manager.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfWmn9lDgSw[/embed]

Three days prior to reaching Mars, the Schiaparelli lander will separate from the TGO and begin its descent to the Martian surface. Though Schiaparelli is mostly designed to gather information about its descent and landing, it still will do some science. It has a small payload of instrument which will function for 2-8 days on the surface, studying the environment and returning the results to Earth.

The TGO will perform its own set of maneuvers, inserting itself into an elliptical orbit around Mars and then spending a year aero-braking in the Martian atmosphere. After that, the TGO will settle into a circular orbit about 400 km above the surface of Mars.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oK8R6D9yGM[/embed]

The TGO is hunting for methane, which is a chemical signature for life. It will also be studying the surface features of Mars.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUuJqXaCOWw[/embed]

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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 Planet

Launching 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 half a dozen fragments following it. Having done its job, the Briz-M stage was to execute a maneuver after separation, placing it into a ‘graveyard’ solar orbit. Not only would this clear ExoMars on its trajectory, but the Red Planet itself.

Anatoly Zak notes in a recent article for Popular Mechanics online that the Briz-M upper stage isn’t subjected to strict sterilization measures, though its unclear if it too will reach Mars.

Solar orbit is littered with discarded boosters and spacecraft, going all the way back to the first mission to fly past the Moon and image the lunar farside, the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 in 1959. Some of these even come back on occasion to revisit the Earth as temporary moonlets, such as the Apollo 12 booster in 2002 and the Chang’e-2 booster in 2013.

And there is nothing more that the fabled ‘Galactic Ghoul’ loves than tasty Mars-bound spacecraft. Though the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is in its expected trajectory to Mars as planned, it seems that the the Briz-M upper stage may have exploded seconds after spacecraft separation.

The incident is eerily similar to the fate that befell the Phobos-Grunt sample return mission. Also launched from Baikonur, the spacecraft was stranded in Earth orbit after its Fregat upper stage failed to do its job. Phobos-Grunt reentered on January 15th, 2012 just over two months after launch, taking its container of Planetary Society-funded tardigrades scheduled to make the round trip to Mars permanently to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean instead.

The Mars 96 mission also failed to leave Earth orbit, and reentered over South America on November 16th, 1996 with a radioactive payload meant for power surface penetrators bound for the Red Planet.

The Russians haven’t had good luck with Mars landers, though they are the only nation to land a spacecraft on Venus… and had at least one spare Venusian Death Probe crash on Earth and fight the Six Million Dollar Man back in the 1970’s TV show, to boot.

The U.S. has actually had pretty good luck on Mars, having only lost the Mars Polar Lander for seven successful landing attempts. If successful later this year, Schiaparelli will be a first landing on Mars for any other space agency other than NASA.

And you’ll be able to explore Mars for yourself shortly, as opposition season for the Red Planet is right around the corner. Opposition for 2016 occurs on May 22nd, and we’re in for a cycle of favorable oppositions leading up to one in 2018 that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic 2003 opposition.

Space is hard, but the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter seems to be made of still harder stuff, the likes of which no explosion in space can kill.

Onward to Mars!

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ExoMars Mission Narrowly Avoids Exploding Booster

The ExoMars craft releases the Schiaparelli lander in October in this artist's view. Credit: ESA

On March 14, the ExoMars mission successfully lifted off on a 7-month journey to the planet Mars but not without a little surprise. The Breeze-M upper booster stage, designed to give the craft its final kick toward Mars, exploded shortly after parting from the probe. Thankfully, it wasn’t close enough to damage the spacecraft.

Michel Denis, ExoMars flight director at the European Space Operations, Center in Darmstadt, Germany, said that the two craft were many kilometers apart at the time of the breakup, so the explosion wouldn’t have posed a risk. Still, the mission team won’t be 100% certain until all the science instruments are completely checked over in the coming weeks.

All went well during the takeoff and final separation of the probe, but then something odd happened. Breeze-M was supposed to separate cleanly into two pieces — the main body and a detachable fuel tank — and maneuver itself to a graveyard or “junk” orbit, where rockets and spacecraft are placed at the end of their useful lives, so they don’t cause trouble with operational satellites.

But instead of two pieces, tracking photos taken at the OASI Observatory in Brazil not long after the stage and probe separated show  a cloud of debris, suggesting an explosion occurred that shattered the booster to pieces.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Russian Breeze-M blew up.

According to Russian space observer Anatoly Zak in a recent article in Popular Mechanics, a Breeze-M that delivered a Russian spy satellite into orbit last December exploded on January 16. Propellant in one of its fuel tanks may not have been properly vented into space; heated by the sun, the tank’s contents likely combusted and ripped the stage apart. A similar incident occurred in October 2012.

For now, we’ll embrace the good news that the spacecraft, which houses the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, are underway to Mars and in good health.

ExoMars is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). One of the mission’s key goals is to follow up on the methane detection made by ESA’s Mars Express probe in 2004 to understand where the gas comes from. Mars’ atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide with the remaining 5% divided among nitrogen, argon, oxygen and others including small amounts of methane, a gas that on Earth is produced largely by living creatures.

Scientists want to know how martian methane got into the atmosphere. Was it produced by biology or geology? Methane, unless it is continuously produced by a source, only survives in the Martian atmosphere for a few hundreds of years because it quickly breaks down to form water and carbon dioxide. Something is refilling the atmosphere with methane but what?

TGO will also look at potential sources of other trace gases such as volcanoes and map the planet’s surface. It can also detect buried water-ice deposits, which, along with locations identified as sources of the trace gases, could influence the choice of landing sites of future missions.

The orbiter will also act as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission — a rover and stationary surface science platform scheduled for launch in May 2018 and arriving in early 2019.

On October 16, when the spacecraft is still 559,000 miles (900,000 kilometers) from the Red Planet, the Schiaparelli lander will separate from the orbiter and three days later parachute down to the Martian surface. The orbiter will take measurements of the planet’s atmosphere (including methane) as well as any atmospheric electrical fields.

Mars is a popular place. There are currently five active orbiters there: two European (Mars Express and Mars Odyssey), two American (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN), one Indian (Mars Orbiter Mission) and two rovers (Opportunity and Curiosity) with another lander and orbiter en route!

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Weekly Space Hangout – Mar. 18, 2016: Song of the Stars

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Guests: Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter) Paul, one of our WSH regular panelists, will be talking about Song of the Stars, a project he is leading that brings astronomy to life using modern dance. Guests: Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz) Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier ) Their stories this week: The Launch […]

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