ExoMars returns first close-up photos of Mars

The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) made its first scientific observations last week, after testing its suite of instruments. The orbiter’s first look at the red planet gave scientists a sample of the three-dimensional imagery and the atmospheric measurements that the spacecraft will carry out during its five-year mission.

The orbiter’s science camera — the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) — got one of the closest views of Mars it will get throughout TGO’s mission. The spacecraft was 235 km from the surface, and flying over the Hebes Chasma region, just north of the Valles Marineris canyon system. Thanks to this proximity, the camera team was able to complete a 3D reconstruction of a region in Noctis Labyrinthus, from a stereo pair of images.

The camera aboard the TGO is designed to capture pairs of images of the same location on Mars from different angles as the spacecraft flies overhead. The camera first takes one image of a particular location, then the spacecraft pivots to take another picture from a different viewpoint. The combination of images allows scientists to create a stereo image, revealing topography and vertical relief not visible in a single picture.

The first stereo reconstruction of a small area in a region called Noctis Labyrinthus. The image gives an altitude map of the region with a resolution of less than 20 m. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE - See more at: http://www.rheagroup.com/exomars-tgo-first-images/#sthash.zKwQ7df1.dpuf

TGO’s main goal is to make a detailed inventory of the rare gasses that make up less than 1% of the atmosphere volume, including methane, water vapor, nitrogen dioxide and acetylene. Of high interest is methane, which on Earth is produced primarily by biological activity.

The two instruments tasked with this role have now demonstrated they can take highly sensitive spectra of the atmosphere. During the test observations last week, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite focused on carbon dioxide, which makes up a large volume of the planet’s atmosphere, while the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery instrument homed in on water.

“We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment, and this first impression gives a fantastic preview of what’s to come when we start collecting data for real at the end of next year.”
Håkan Svedhem
ESA’s TGO Project Scientist.

Complementary measurements by the orbiter’s neutron detector, FREND, will measure the flow of neutrons from the planet’s surface. Created by the impact of cosmic rays, the way in which they are emitted and their speed on arriving at TGO points to the composition of the surface layer, in particular to water or ice just below the surface.

“We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment, and this first impression gives a fantastic preview of what’s to come when we start collecting data for real at the end of next year,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s TGO Project Scientist.

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