Express being loaded at Blagnac Airport in Toulouse
Protected by a vast metal overcoat weighing over 5 tonnes, ESA's Mars Express spacecraft has taken the first (Earthly) step of its momentous journey to the Red Planet. Europe's first spacecraft to visit Mars left Toulouse Blagnac Airport on 19 March 2003 on board an enormous Antonov 124 aircraft, the largest aeroplane in the world, on the way to its launch site at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
Transporting such a precious and weighty load is rarely straightforward. The hermetically sealed container containing Mars Express provided a controlled environment specifically designed for the purpose, giving a dry nitrogen atmosphere, controlled temperature humidity, and air pressure. Furthermore, it protects the spacecraft from any mechanical shocks it might receive en route.
Security has to be watertight: the flight programme had to be agreed with the aviation authorities weeks in advance, and eight people, including two ESA scientists, accompanied the spacecraft at all times. This entourage is also essential as these are the people who must decide what to do with the spacecraft container in case of any unforeseen events.
The eight-hour flight was interrupted in Ulyanovsk, in the Volga region, for Mars Express and its entourage to clear customs. These days, taking a spacecraft across the border attracts a lot of bureaucracy, and it took Mars Express five hours to satisfy the customs authorities.
It was not
just the spacecraft that was en route to Baikonur. Packing for the trip
was a lengthy ordeal as all of Mars Express's accompanying equipment filled
more than 11 massive containers. In fact, this suite of 7-metre-long containers
had to travel in an Antonov 124 aeroplane all on its own - it left Toulouse
two days later on 21 March 2003. Unpacking this support equipment once
it reached Baikonur Cosmodrome was just as arduous. This equipment included
all the test and assembly tools needed to finalise and monitor the satellite
before final liftoff, as well as masses of documentation and more than
a few spare parts.
Naturally, Mars Express does not travel around fully fuelled. The 540 litres of propellant the spacecraft will use to reach the Red Planet arrived separately by boat from the United Kingdom.
Once it reached
Yubilejny airport in the heart of Baikonur, the spacecraft was immediately
loaded on to a train to be carefully transported at a snail's pace to
the preparation facilities a few kilometres away. Mars Express will now
be fully assembled on site and undergo its final series of tests, before
it gets the go-ahead for launch in June 2003.
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