ExoMars Spacecraft Safe After Rocket Stage Explosion

OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva / ESA
At least nine moving objects, all thought to be related to a possible explosion of the Breeze-M upper stage after separation from the ExoMars spacecraft, move across the sky in this animation. ExoMars is further ahead and outside the frame. Credit and copyright: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva / 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 which remains in perfect health.

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 that some kind of explosion occurred that broke the booster into pieces. There’s more to consider. Space probes intended to either land or be crashed into planets have to pass through strict sterilization procedures that rocket boosters aren’t subject to. Assuming the Breeze-M shrapnel didn’t make it to its graveyard orbit, there exists the possibility some of it might be heading for Mars. If any earthly bugs inhabit the remains, it could potentially lead to unwanted consequences on Mars.

And this isn’t the first time a Russian Breeze-M has blown 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 vented into space properly; heated by the sun, the tank’s contents may have combusted and ripped the stage apart. Another incident occurred in October 2012.

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

The good news is that the spacecraft, which houses the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli  lander, are happily on their way to Mars.

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 and how it evolves in the Martian atmosphere. 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.

A map showing methane gas concentration in Mars' atmosphere. Credit: Trent Schindler/NASA
NASA researchers using telescopes right here on Earth also detected multiple methane plumes coming from the surface on Mars in 2003. Credit: Trent Schindler/NASA

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. So something is refilling the atmosphere with methane.

TGO will also map the planet In addition, it will be able to 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.

Clouds drift over the Hellas Basin on Mars in this photo taken March 23. The Red Planet has intrigued humankind for centuries. Credit: Anthony Wesley
Clouds gather over Mars’ Hellas Basin in this photo taken March 23. The Red Planet has intrigued humankind for centuries. Credit: Anthony Wesley

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!