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ExoMars team press on as inquest begins into Proton crash

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
May 20, 2015, 0:04 UTC

Sen—Russia’s latest rocket failure will have caused some anxiety among European Space Agency (ESA) scientists because a similar vehicle is due to launch its first ExoMars probes to the Red Planet in January next year.

Roscosmos has begun an inquiry into why its Proton-M rocket, carrying a Mexican satellite, failed during operation of the third stage and crashed back to Earth near the border with China on Saturday, May 16.

The fleet is effectively grounded for the moment. But ExoMars must launch between Jan. 7 and 27, 2016, to reach Mars, as it and the Earth draw closer together on the same side of the Sun.

The failure is the most recent of several by the Proton-M, the latest variant of a rocket that was introduced in 1965. The Proton-M has been flying since 2001 and around 10 percent have failed, with the previous lost in May 2014. In July 2013, one crashed in a fireball seconds after liftoff.

Saturday’s failure also came just three weeks after a Soyuz-2-1a rocket failed to put a Progress cargo ship into its correct orbit on April 28, sending it spinning out of control before it finally burned up over the Pacific Ocean on May 8.

Mars watchers will also recall that Russia’s own Phobos Grunt sample-return mission to our planetary neighbour ended in disaster when it crashed back to Earth two months after its launch in November 2011.

Russia’s space agency agreed to launch both ESA’s ExoMars missions, in 2016 and 2018, atop Proton rockets, after NASA dropped out as a primary partner in the missions.

Emeritus Professor of Space Science John Zarnecki, who was head of the Open University’s Planetary and Space Sciences department in the UK, has overseen several missions and led one of the science teams on ESA’s Huygens probe which landed on the surface of Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan.

He told Sen: “The rocket failures are worrying. But as far as the teams on the ground are concerned, everybody will note the Proton crash, then carry on working absolutely as before. I’ve seen similar situations in the past. You kind of bury your head in the sand, but in a positive way. What you absolutely don’t want is for anybody to slacken off and think that maybe we’re going to have a launch slip. This is a case where we have a fairly narrow window in which to launch to reach Mars. If there is a launch slip, then that will be two years, pretty much!”

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An artist's impression of ExoMars' Trace Gas Orbiter studying Mars. Image credit: ESA, D. Ducros

Professor Zarnecki added: “We’ve got a relatively new head of the Russian space agency, so one assumes he will have an enormous motivation to get this sorted out. And one has the impression now that the space programme is again very much seen as a matter of national prestige in Russia, so I think there is political pressure to solve the problems.

“But we should remember, just as an aside, that there have been some very successful missions which went ahead after launch failures. The launch of Rosetta in 2004 is one example. It was delayed more than a year because a previous Ariane 5 rocket failed.

“We can never be complacent. Things go wrong with rockets just as cars and televisions go wrong occasionally. Almost anybody who has done something in space over a career will have had a launch failure. But in the long term, launch statistics are now pretty good. Much better than they were 30 years ago.”

ExoMars consists of an orbiting spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), and a lander called Schiaparelli, also known as the ExoMars Entry, descent and landing Demonstrator Module. The mated spacecraft underwent vibration testing at Thales Alenia Space, in Cannes, France, on April 23, the latest major stage of their preparation.

Following launch, they are expected to take about nine months on the cruise phase of their journey to Mars. The mission’s main objective is to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could indicate active biological or geological processes. It will also test key technologies for subsequent missions, including another ExoMars mission in 2018 that will put a robotic rover on the martian surface.