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(UPDATE 23 March 2016) The original caption for the large image above, published on 17 March, stated that it showed ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) as a bright object at centre, following separation from the Breeze-M upper stage of the Proton rocket that delivered the spacecraft into an interplanetary orbit on 14 March.
Following additional analysis by teams at ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre, it has become clear that TGO is in fact not in this image – it was already further ahead and beyond the frame. Thus all of the moving objects in this image are related to the Breeze-M.
We apologise for the initially erroneous information. The caption below has been updated.
On 14 March, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander were lofted into orbit by a Proton rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, starting a seven-month journey to the Red Planet.
Following separation from the final stage at 20:13 GMT, the craft left on a trajectory pointing to where Mars will be in October, travelling at 33 001 km/h with respect to Earth.
For asteroid hunters, ExoMars offers a perfect target because its departure mimics, in reverse, the approach of a small NEO. These include rocky asteroids formed between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter which head towards Earth every so often.
For the TGO launch, ESA’s NEO coordination centre in Italy organised an international campaign for ground-based optical observations of the departing spacecraft.
Quick imaging of a rapidly moving object whose location is only approximately known in a short time window is akin to what would happen if an asteroid were discovered on an imminent impact trajectory with Earth.
The predicted path of ExoMars provided by ESA’s Space Debris Office in the Agency’s operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany – home to ExoMars mission control – was converted by the NEO centre into pointing information for telescopes.
This information was then shared widely with ESA’s network of collaborating observatories in the southern hemisphere, from where ExoMars was observable. Excellent images were acquired by Alison Tripp and Sarah Roberts using a 1 m-diameter telescope in Australia (right, below), and by Grant Christie at the Stardome Observatory in Auckland, New Zealand (left, below).
These two images show two trails: the first is ExoMars and Breeze-M core; the second is the Breeze-M fuel tank.
The most remarkable images, however, were acquired just before midnight local time by the Observatório Astronômico do Sertão de Itaparica team in Brazil led by Daniela Lazzaro, with Sergio Silva at the telescope.
Their images show a number of moving objects which are all believed to be related to the Breeze-M upper stage after separation (ExoMars is not visible in these images); these are shown as the large animation at the top of this page.
With ExoMars safely disappearing into deep space, the NEO Coordination Centre campaign ended with very positive results made possible by the enthusiastic and passionate response of the NEO community.
Access details and the full set of images via ESA’s NEO Coordination Centre webpages.