European Space Agency (ESA) has released the first images captured by ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) - its newest mission to Mars. The teams behind the mission are now delighted to see the astonishing images of the crags and cliffs of the Red Planet sent by ExoMars TGO.
The ExoMars is orbiting the Red Planet since October 19, 2016. Unfortunately, the doomed Schiaparelli lander that accompanied ExoMars during the whole journey failed to make a soft landing and crashed on the surface of Mars on the same day.
"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," said Nicolas Thomas, who leads the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System at the University of Bern.
According to Thomas, the first images sent by ExoMars orbiter were captured during spacecraft's first closeby on November 22, and the images are "absolutely spectacular."
Some images - joined together in a video - were taken when the orbiter was flying just 235 kilometers above the planet's surface, while others were captured when the orbiter was thousands of miles away from the Red Planet. The video shows several mountains and craters in different regions of the Mars, including the Arsia Chasmata, which is located close to Martian volcano, also known as Arsia Mons. According to ESA, these images were gathered during an instrument test for the orbiter.
ESA team is currently busy checking out various scientific instruments on TGO that is orbiting the Red Planet in an initial elliptical orbit which takes it from 250 km above the surface to about 98,000 km every 4.2 days.
During the last two orbits, from November 20-28, the mission team tested for the first time the four scientific instruments onboard TGO and made some important calibration measurements. The orbiter sent 11 pictures captured during that period, including the views of an 8 km-deep trough, Hebes Chasma, located in the northern most part of Valles Marineris. The mission team also tested the color and stereo capabilities of CaSSIS.
According to Thomas, the first images received from the orbiter don't reveal a good amount of color because of the dust on the surface. One of the images shows a crater, 20 inch deep and 8.9 feet across. This crater was dug by Schiaparelli when it hit the surface of the planet. The image suggests that the lander was moving at a speed no less than 300 kph when it hit the surface.
The ExoMars is a joint project between the ESA and Roscosmos, and aims to search for signs of geological and biological activity on the Red Planet. The TGO orbiter is carrying with it four scientific instruments built by European and Russian scientists. These instruments will help researchers accurately measure the amount of methane and other trace gases (nitrogen dioxide, water vapor and acetylene) on Mars that make up less than 1% of the volume of Mars' atmosphere. NASA has periodically detected methane on Mars. On Earth, this gas is produced by different biological and geological processes.
ExoMars mission team has already tested two instruments that will investigate methane and other gases. During tests, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite on TGO orbiter focused on carbon dioxide, and the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery (NOMD) instrument searched for water on Mars.
From March, 2017 onwards, TGO will start using Mars atmosphere to slow down the speed of the spacecraft (aerobraking) to attain a nearly circular orbit of 400 km above Mars surface. The process will take about 9-12 months to get completed and then the initial scientific exploration phase will start near the end of 2017.
The ESA and Russia have also been planning to launch another ExoMars mission in 2020. This mission will be designed to deliver a rover and landing platform to Martian surface and to drill beneath the planet's surface.