Europe's new Mars orbiter starts sending data from NASA rovers

Europe's new Mars orbiter starts sending data from NASA rovers

These capabilities will also be invaluable if and when human beings are sent to Mars, to help support the building of infrastructure on the ground in advance of these missions and to phone home once astronauts arrive.

The ESA's ExoMars/Trace Gas Orbiter landed on the red planet on 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.

However, TGO has been successfully circling the Red Planet since then, testing its equipment and capturing outstandingly sharp images of the landscape using its Colour & Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS).

"The first images we received are absolutely spectacular-and it was only meant to be a test", Thomas told Universe Today. The European Space Agency (ESA) released a video highlight reel of the new visual data on Tuesday, which includes timelapses taken at a distant 5,300 kilometers (3,293 miles) and sharp close-ups snapped at altitudes of 235 kilometers (146 miles) with high resolutions of 2.8 meters per pixel.

A structure called Arsia Chasmata on the flanks of one of the large Martian volcanoes, Arsia Mons. According to ESA, these images were gathered during an instrument test for the orbiter.

It spent the last two orbits during 20-28 November testing its four science instruments for the first time since arrival, and making important calibration measurements.

For the next few months, the team will continue to prepare CaSSIS for its prime mission. The first images are not very colorful because the area of Mars now being imaged contains mostly monochromatic volcanic terrain. 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). This crater was dug by Schiaparelli when it hit the surface of the planet.

CaSSIS is one of four science instruments aboard the satellite, which ESA built in partnership with Russian Federation.

In keeping with ExoMars' goal of discovering signs of life, the TGO's agenda is to produce a detailed inventory of rare gases in Mars' lower atmosphere. NASA has periodically detected methane on Mars. If methane is present in Martian air, something-either a biological or geological process-is resupplying it.

The two instruments tested are the Atmosheric Chemistry Suite and the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery intstrument.

TGO will spend 9 to 12 months slowing down (aerobraking) to round out its elliptical orbit.

But as emphasized by mission leads, the orbiter is the real MVP of the ExoMars project, both in terms of cost and scientific potential.