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Europe's Mars orbiter begins descent to red planet

A European lander has started its three-day, million-kilometer descent to Mars. However, ground controllers reported a brief break in status data updates following the release of the orbiter.

Ground controllers working at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, re-established full links Sunday with a European-Russian Mars orbiter which stopped sending status updates after releasing a lander on a three-day mission to the surface of the Red Planet.

"Everything is back on track," ESOC spokeswoman Jocelyne Landeau-Constantin told the Agence France-Presse news agency by telephone. 

Earlier on Sunday, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was sending signals home, which were briefly lost, flight director Michel Denis of the ExoMars mission said via live webcast, after the test lander separated from its mothership.

The European Space Agency (ESA) dispatched the experimental probe in March to explore Mars' atmosphere and search for signs of life.

Prior to the loss of status data updates, ESA tweeted that the successful separation of the Schiaparelli lander from the TGO, about 1 million kilometers (621,000 miles) from the Red Planet's surface, "had gone perfectly well." 

Europe has contributed 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion) to the mission, while America's NASA, which was due to contribute $1.4 billion, pulled out due to budget cuts in 2012, causing Europe to turn to Russia to work on the shared project with Roscosmos. ESA's last attempted Mars landing with the Beagle 2 rover failed in 2003.

Watch video 00:36

ExoMars liftoff from inside ESA

jbh/jlw (AP, AFP)

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