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The European-Russian Mars orbiter/lander ExoMars was successfully launched on a Proton rocket this morning from Baikonur.
It will still take most of today for the rocket’s Briz-M upper stage to complete several additional engine burns to send the spacecraft on its path to Mars, but the most difficult part of the launch has now passed.
The article does a nice job of summing up Russia’s most recent track record in trying to send spacecraft to Mars, thus illustrating the significance of today’s success:
For Russian scientists, the launch marks the resumption of a cooperative effort with Europe to explore the Solar System, after the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011.The launch of the ExoMars-2016 spacecraft will be Proton’s first “interplanetary” assignment in almost two decades. During its previous attempt in November 1996, Proton’s upper stage failed, sending the precious Mars-96 spacecraft to a fiery desmise in the Earth’s atmosphere and effectively stalling Russia’s planetary exploration program for a generation.
Further in the past, during the Soviet era, the Russians tried numerous times to either orbit or land on Mars. Every mission failed. If this mission successfully reaches Mars and lands it will mark the first time the Russians played a major role in a mission to Mars that actually reached its goal and worked.