ESA has confirmed that the ExoMars 2016's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership has opened its "eyes" and sent back its first test images. Launched on March 14 from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the joint ESA/Roscosmos mission to Mars was over 83 million km (52 million mi) from Earth on April 7 when it transmitted a picture of random section of sky near the southern celestial pole as part of its commissioning process.
The image was made of two frames taken by the rotating camera on the TGO from slightly different angle. By switching between the images, flight engineers were able to measure the offset and confirm that the pointing mechanism was operating properly.
"The initial switch-on went quite smoothly and so far things look good," says Nicolas Thomas from the University of Bern in Switzerland, and camera principal investigator. "Although it was not designed to look at faint stars, these first images are very reassuring. Everything points to us being able to get good data at Mars."
In addition to the camera test, mission control also put the spacecraft through a number of commissioning exercises as it speeds toward the Red Planet. The control, navigation, and communication systems have been brought on line and the 2.2-m (87-in) high-gain radio antenna was deployed to provide a two Mbit/s link with Earth. The trace gas sensors for seeking subsurface ice on Mars were also activated and tested, and the Schiaparelli module was put through its first flight and instrument systems checks.
Consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mothership and the Schiaparelli entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, the ExoMars 2016 mission is tasked with looking for evidence of life on Mars. Once on station in October of this year, the TGO will look for traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere with a view to learning more about the mechanism that produces it, and to determine if this is geological, chemical, or biological. It will also send back images of the Martian surface and search for subsurface ice deposits.
Meanwhile, the Schiaparelli module's brief career will be spent taking readings of the atmosphere during its descent to the surface. Though it's not a lander, it will test landing radar, navigational cameras, and other instruments that will be used for the ExoMars 2018 lander mission. If it survives the descent, the probe will not be able to send back pictures from the surface, but it will continue to send back telemetry for as long as its batteries hold out.
"TGO and Schiaparelli instruments are all working well, and the science teams that operate them will continue calibration and configuration checks while en route to Mars to ensure they are ready for the exciting mission that lies ahead," said Håkan Svedhem, ESA's ExoMars 2016 project scientist.
EXOMars 2016 is scheduled to make a major course correction in July to set it on the proper trajectory to rendezvous with Mars on October 19.
The animation below shows the upcoming highlights of the ExoMars 2016 mission.