The latest mission to Mars began its long journey today as the ExoMars 2016 lifted off at 09:31 GMT atop a Russian Proton-M/Breeze-M rocket at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. A joint effort led by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos, ExoMars 2016 is the first of a two-spacecraft mission to the Red Planet with the second unmanned probe scheduled to launch in 2018.

According to ESA, the three-stage Proton launch vehicle lifted the 4,332 kg (9,550 lb) spacecraft to an altitude of over 4,900 km (3,044 mi). At 20:13 GMT, the Breeze-M upper stage will eject the probe at a velocity of 33,000 km/h (18,000 mph), which is fast enough for it to achieve a transfer orbit to Mars.

Currently, the ExoMars 2016 is incommunicado, but radio contact is expected to by made at 21:28 GMT, or 12 hours after lift off, by the Italian Space Agency's Malindi ground station in Kenya, which will relay the signals to mission control at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

If contact is successful, ExoMars 2016 will spend the next several weeks in commissioning tests leading up to its arrival in Mars orbit on October 19 after traveling a total of 496 million km (308 million mi). Three days previous, on October 16, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership will release the Schiaparelli entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, which will plunge into the Martian atmosphere on arrival day

The ExoMars 2016 mission is short for Exobiology Mars and is tasked with looking for evidence of life on Mars. It consists of the TGO and Schiaparelli module. The TGO will look for traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere with an eye on learning more about the mechanism that produces it and to determine if this is geological, chemical, or biological. It will also send back images of the Martian surface and search for subsurface ice deposits.

Meanwhile, the Schiaparelli module's brief career will be to take readings of the atmosphere during its descent to the surface. Though it's not a lander, it will test landing radar, navigational cameras, and other instruments that will be used for the ExoMars 2018 lander mission. If it survives the descent, the probe will not be able to send back pictures from the surface, but it will continue to send back telemetry for as long as its batteries hold out.

Source: ESA