ESA releases first close-up photos from ExoMars mission

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which entered orbit in mid-October, is testing onboard technologies – among them, the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS).

In this photo by ExoMars CaSSIS camera, a crater nearly one mile wide sits on the rim of a larger crater near Mars' equator.

On Tuesday, the European Space Agency released the first photos from its ExoMars mission.

On board the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in mid-October, the instruments are powering up, including the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS). Now, the camera’s first high-definition photos are streaming toward Earth, showing swaths of the Martian landscape.

“The first images we received are absolutely spectacular, – and it was only meant to be a test,” said Nicolas Thomas, CaSSIS team leader, at the University of Bern's Center of Space and Habitability.

ESA activated the camera to test its color sensitivity and stereo-imaging functions. If all works properly, CaSSIS will soon generate 3D maps of the planet’s surface. Initial photos appear colorless, but researchers say that’s the result of Mars’ dusty volcanic landscape, not a technical issue. When TGO flies over something more colorful, CaSSIS should be able to distinguish it.

TGO’s elliptical orbit around the planet completes once every four days. At its closest approach, spacecraft dips to just 155 miles above the ground, then swings out to about 60,000 miles before curving back toward the surface.

CaSSIS has now been operational for two close flyovers. During the first, it captured 11 high-resolution images of a 190-mile-long canyon called Hebes Chasma.

“We saw Hebes Chasma at 2.8 meters per pixel,” Dr. Thomas said. “That’s a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 kilometers per hour [10,000 mph] and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zürich.”

The test represents a needed success for a mission marred by technical difficulties. Last month, the other piece of the ExoMars mission, the Schiaparelli lander, lost contact with mission control just before it was supposed to touch down on the Red Planet. ESA officials later confirmed that the soft lander, which began its final descent about 2.5 miles above the surface, was likely destroyed.

The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Schiaparelli’s landing was anything but "soft" – the spacecraft failed to fire its descent-slowing thrusters as long as intended, and full fuel tanks would have exploded upon impact.

ESA has not yet determined what caused the crash, but is currently analyzing the lander’s recovered descent data for clues. Officials say the craft's descent technology, designed to slow the lander down as it careened toward Mars, deployed normally.

The crash was a setback for ExoMars, but not a defeat. Schiaparelli recorded valuable data during its descent, and TGO continues to monitor gases on the planet, particularly methane.

The different amounts of methane in different areas will reveal new insight into Mars’ geological processes, or possibly provide evidence of subsurface microbes. On Earth, researchers note, single-celled organisms are the main contributors of atmospheric methane.

“A lot of public attention has been on the failed landing of Schiaparelli, but TGO has been working really well so we have been extremely busy in the past month,” Thomas said.

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