Europe's second mission to Mars has begun its journey from its birthplace in Cannes to its planned arrival at Mars on October 19. Since December 17 we've been able to watch every step of its journey, thanks to a stream of tweets from Albert Haldemann. He is overseeing the spacecraft's assembly, integration, and verification, and closely monitored the three Antonov trips between Turin and Baikonur required to transport ExoMars and all its equipment, traveling on the third one. Tweeting from Baikonur was technical operations officer Remy van Haarlem. I've Storified their tweets here, but include a few highlights below.
I'll condense his next few tweets into paragraph form:
Wide load trucks are "convoi exceptionnel" and in France are allowed to travel after midnight. But the highway between Cannes and Turin via Savona is has major roadworks at night and would close, so @ESA_Exomars could leave at 19:00. At 21:00 a truck caught fire in a tunnel on the hwy from Savona to Turin---not @ESA_Exomars truck thank goodness...but stopped traffic. Lead vehicles w/ Thales personnel warned @ESA_Exomars trucks (going slower), so they left the hwy and took the old road over the pass. Then, past Mondevi, A6 hwy was thick with pea soup fog banks...and @ESA_Exomars trucks slowed further...arrived 05:00.
Here's a neat video of the Antonov arriving and being unloaded in Baikonur:
But I think this video is my favorite:
ExoMars is a complex program that consists of multiple spacecraft that will be launched in the next two Mars opportunities in March 2016 and May 2018. The 2016 launch includes the Trace Gas Orbiter (inevitably abbreviated "TGO") and an experimental landing module named Schiaparelli. Without solar power, Schiaparelli will last only 2 to 4 days after landing, and has limited science capability; it has a descent camera but no capability to take photos once on the surface. Its main purpose is to demonstrate the technologies that will be necessary to land the 2018 ExoMars rover and lander mission. Trace Gas Orbiter's science package will follow up on Mars Express' methane detections, study atmospheric chemistry, and improve on Mars Express' stereo imaging and Mars Odyssey's neutron mapping to locate subsurface ice. After the 2018 mission lands, Trace Gas Orbiter will serve as its primary communications relay.
I'm very grateful to Haldemann and van Haarlem for permitting us this detailed view into ExoMars' journey across Europe and into Asia, and I wish them and the rest of the ExoMars team a prosperous new year of Marsward travel!