Ready for lift off!
"We’re ready to go!" reports Michael Witting, Mars Express launch campaign manager, in the final instalment of our Mars Express diary before tonight's launch.
"The Mars Express spacecraft has been successfully loaded with propellant and oxidiser, giving it enough fuel to ensure its proper insertion into Martian orbit just around Christmas this year.
"This activity marked the end of the 'stand-alone operations' for Mars Express here in Baikonur, and from now on each activity in the 'combined operations' phase had to be closely co-ordinated with the launcher teams.
"The spacecraft was then mated with the Launch Vehicle Adapter, which provides the interface with the Fregat upper stage of the launcher, and caters for the separation system that enables proper injection of Mars Express into its interplanetary trajectory.
"It was then integrated onto the Fregat upper stage, which performs all necessary manoeuvres in low earth orbit, before Mars Express is separated and sent alone on its way to Mars.
"Next, the payload fairing, which protects the spacecraft during the atmospheric ascent of the rocket, was installed. This is done with the spacecraft in a horizontal position.
"Finally, the Fregat upper stage and spacecraft were mated with the Soyuz launcher’s 1st and 2nd stages in the launch vehicle integration building.
"And then, at last, everything was ready for the big show, the launcher roll-out to the pad. Traditionally, since the days of Yuri Gagarin, this takes place at 7:30 in the morning, which means that our whole team had to leave the hotel at 6:00 in order to arrive in time to witness the event.
"The launcher integration hall is a brick stone building that was built in the (very) early days of space exploration, and the harsh weather conditions have left their traces on its faces. The launch vehicle, all polished and new, is inside the building on a special erector wagon which forms part of a train pulled by an old Diesel-propelled locomotive.
At exactly 7:30 the train sets into motion, and the contrast couldn’t be bigger: A high-tech scientific satellite sitting atop one of the most reliable rockets in existence, emerges from the giant doors of an old brick stone building.
"The train moves at a comfortable walking speed, and all our team follows it – like a group of tourists armed with cameras – along its path up to the launch pad where it arrives just 30 minutes later. Once we’re there, the hydraulics of the erector wagon bring the launcher up into vertical position, and shortly after that the rocket with its precious Mars Express payload is finally installed on the launch pad: Only four more days, and we’re (almost) ready to go."