ExoMars has mostly garnered attention for its failed Schiaparelli lander, but the other half of its mission is actually doing a great job.
After a five-month journey, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) reached Mars on October 19, and last week the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) camera captured its first 11 high-resolution views of Mars.
“The first images we received are absolutely spectacular – and it was only meant to be a test,” Professor Nicolas Thomas, CaSSIS team leader, said in a statement. “We saw Hebes Chasma at 2.8 meters (9 feet) per pixel. That’s a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 kilometres per hour (9,300 miles per hour) and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich.”
The team showcased an incredible 3D reconstruction of Noctis Labyrinthus, the region at the western end of Valles Marineris. The stereo image has a resolution of less than 20 meters (65 feet), and it seems that it will be able to create incredible altitude maps of Mars.
The first stereo reconstruction of a small area in Noctis Labyrinthus. ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE
"The techniques for producing stereo from this type of data are still being developed but our Italian colleagues from the Astronomical Observatory of Padova (INAF), who are experts in this field, were able to produce a first result in just a couple of days in spite of it being very challenging,” added Thomas.
Currently, TGO is in a wide elliptical orbit that goes out to over 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) and as close as 250 kilometers (155 miles). It takes about four days for the spacecraft to go around this path. This is obviously not the final orbit for TGO. Next March, the craft will begin to use the atmosphere to slow down (a method called aerobraking), which over several months will take TGO to a circular orbit 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the surface.
One of the main objectives of TGO is to study the presence of methane on Mars, which might be connected to the presence of life on the planet. The cameras will help photograph potential sites that release gas and aid scientists in determining where future landers and rovers should explore.