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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

ExoMars Spacecraft Seen on Its Way to Mars!

By Phil Plait

Well, this is pretty dang cool: The ExoMars spacecraft, which successfully launched on March 14, was spotted by telescopes on its way to the Red Planet!

That animation consists of a series of short exposures taken at the Observatório Astronômico do Sertão de Itaparica in Brazil just a few hours after launch. It shows the spacecraft itself (the brightest object) moving across the stars (which are smeared out a bit since the telescope was tracking on ExoMars), and its followed by several objects, pieces of the Proton rocket’s upper stage.

UPDATE, Mar. 22, 2016: Popular Mechanics just posted an article postulating that the uper Proton stage exploded, which is why there is so much debris. I have to admit when I saw the animation that thought crossed my mind fleetingly, but I had heard nothing about that, so I dismissed it. That was a mistake on my part; I should follow through when my skeptic alarm bell goes off. Note that in the following paragraph I wondered if the fuzzy streaks were real or not. This idea is not yet proven, but it seems consistent with what we're seeing here. Thanks to @phylan for the ink.

The vertical line is likely an artifact of the detector, a bad column of pixels. I suspect the fuzzy streaks are also not real, but it’s possible they could be from an expanding cloud of gas from the upper stage following along the spacecraft as well, free to do so from the lack of anything to stop it in space.

Space craft are very small and—duh—very far away, so it’s rare to get a good shot of them. This one was caught while it was still near Earth, but that chance is over: The spacecraft is well on its way to Mars now, too far away to see.

It’s gone, but not forgotten. On Oct. 19 it will arrive at Mars and begin maneuvering into its science orbit, where it will begin its mission to study trace gases in the Martian atmosphere. And even better, it will launch a small lander, Schiaparelli, which will become a weather station on the surface. If you want to find out more—and you do—of course you should head over to Emily Lakdawalla’s blog at the Planetary Society. That should always be your destination when some spacecraft has a solar system object as its destination.

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