New Mars orbiter provides tantalizing close-up of the Red Planet

4 pictures

A close-up look at a crater on Mars from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter(Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE)

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Most of the headlines around the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission in recent months have had to do with the dramatic failure of the Schiaparelli Mars lander, but on Tuesday its traveling companion, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), proved to be alive and well. ESA shared TGO's first close-up images of the Martian surface, providing a tantalizing preview of more data yet to come.

The images come courtesy of TGO's Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) and were captured during the orbiter's first close fly-by of the Red Planet on November 22. The craft was as close as 235 km (146 miles) while flying over the Hebes Chasma area, north of the massive Valles Marineris canyon system that dwarfs Earth's Grand Canyon.

"We saw Hebes Chasma at 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) per pixel," says University of Bern professor Nicolas Thomas, who led the team that developed CaSSIS. "That's a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 kilometers per hour (9,320 mph) and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich."

The two orbits that the TGO made over the last week or so are not actually representative of its typical orbit, and were done as part of a testing phase to check out all its instruments. As a result, this batch of photos could represent some of the closest images the satellite will ever take, as its normal orbiting elevation will be closer to 400 km (249 miles).

In addition to the sharp photos, separate instruments successfully measured the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere and an increase in neutrons near the planet.

Teams were also able to use some of the images to begin testing their ability to put together 3D representations of the planet's surface.

Over the coming months, researchers hope to take advantage of TGO's instruments to study the Martian seasons and changes that open over the course of a single day. Studies of possible liquid water on the surface and important trace gases like methane that could point to the potential presence of life.

Take a closer look at all the new images in the video below.

Sources: ESA, RBISA, University of Bern - Video: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE

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