Sniffing and Peeking at Mars


The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter gets into position and takes some new pictures

Sniffing and Peeking at Mars

Although it arrived at Mars back in October 2016, the ESA/Roscosmos mission called ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (and no, I couldn’t see a nice acronym in there either) has spent the last 11 months getting into a working orbit.

Using aerobraking the spacecraft has shrunk its highly elliptical capture orbit to a relatively tight, near circular path around Mars, about 400 km above the surface. This is the prime science mission configuration. Although the highest profile science goal for the orbiter is arguably its study of gases like methane in the martian atmosphere, it’s got some other nifty science instruments on board.

One of those is the CaSSIS camera – capable of taking stereoscopic images of the planetary surface to a resolution of some 4.5 meters. Developed at the University of Bern in Switzerland, CaSSIS has been returning data since reaching Mars, but in the new orbit these pictures are taking on a new level of detail. Using a set of 3 color filters – skewed towards the red and infrared bands the following image shows a 40 km long stretch of Korolev Crater at high northern latitudes. Bright looking material is ice.

Credit: ESA, Roscosmos and CaSSIS

With a close up of one area shown here:

Credit: ESA, Roscosmos and CaSSIS

Images like these will help add to our increasingly detailed maps of Mars. In many respects this alien surface is already better mapped out than the Earth’s ocean floors. The CaSSIS data will also help improve our understanding of the comings and goings of volatiles like water and carbon dioxide on Mars, linking these data with the spectroscopic study of trace gases.

Is, for example, methane on Mars coming from specific locations? And is there evidence that it could have a biological origin?

These are big questions, and as ExoMars goes about its business we’re going to get closer to some answers.

 

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