The ExoMars 2016 mission passed a major milestone this week as the Trace Gas Orbiter mothership captured its first images of Mars. ESA said today that the spacecraft sent back the images on Monday, June 13 when it was 41 million km (25 million mi) from the Red Planet.
Though the latest images are not of very high resolution, ESA says they demonstrate that the camera is properly focused and the image signal is close to predicted levels. Mission control will continue to test the camera and other instruments aboard the spacecraft and the data returned will be used for study and calibration.
Launched on March 14, the joint ESA/Roscosmos mission will arrive in Mars orbit in October. On that day the Trace Gas Orbiter will go into orbit while the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator deployed three days previously will enter the Martian atmosphere and land.
"Telescopes on Earth and the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around it can still do far better than at present, but we are still a long way away from Mars," says Nicolas Thomas, the camera's principal investigator. "If the instrument continues to perform well, indications are that we should begin to exceed what is achievable from Earth in the second week of October, and then further improvements in resolution will happen rapidly."
The orbiter's camera is tasked with studying geological features on the Red Planet.