The first mission of the European Space Agency‘s ExoMars programme has lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and is on its way to Mars. The mission includes the Trace Gas Orbiter, plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. The mission will arrive at Mars in October of 2016.
The main objectives of the mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes, and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to future Mars missions.
Three days before reaching Mars, the Schiaparelli lander will detach from the orbiter, and coast towards atmospheric entry. It will enter the atmosphere at 21,000 km/hr, aerobraking and then deploying parachutes. A thruster system system will be used for the final stage of its descent. The lander will operate on the surface of Mars for 2-4 sols (Martian days).
The scientific mission for the Trace Gas Orbiter is expected to begin in December 2017, and run for five years. The orbiter will also relay data for the 2018 ExoMars rover mission until the end of 2022.
Here is a simulation of this first ExoMars mission modeled in Kerbal Space Program – and I gotta say, this is just spectacular!