In the early in the morning of March 14th, 2016, a joint EASA-Roscosmos mission blasted off from Kazakhstan on top of a Proton launch vehicle. The space vehicle will take 7 months traveling through space before arriving to Mars around October 19th. The mission is actually composed of two vehicles, which will separate 3 days prior to the Mars arrival: Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, the later entering the martian atmosphere and landing on the surface.
I wondered if the launch signaled an upcoming Earth-Mars close approach. A space program wanting to reach Mars on a budget would select a launch date at a time when both planets are at their closest to reduce the fuel required, and time spent traveling through space. Sure enough, the next Earth-Mars close approach is May 30, 2016, a few days after opposition of May 22nd. An upcoming great opportunity to turn the telescope to Mars and hopefully capture some of the planet’s features. Mars’ angular size varies from as little as 3.5″ to an easy observing 25.1″ which is quite dramatic.
Earth-Mars close approach happen roughly every 26 months, and often coincide to Mars missions launches. The following list from NASA of recent Mars mission launches show a lovely two year interval.
The last one in 2013 was in November, hence a Mars 2016, 28 months later falls within that window of opportunity. The ExoMars program actually has two space vehicles. The next one is planned for… you guessed it 26 months later: May 2018 launch.