Sometimes you see an image that just blows you away. This is one of those images.
Taken by a Mars orbiter operated by the European Space Agency (ESA), it shows a glorious vista of the Red Planet, complete with an impact crater, ice, sand dunes, and more.
That spacecraft is the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), part of the broader ExoMars project. It entered orbit around Mars in October 2016 (and deployed a lander that failed), but a few weeks ago it was moved into a new almost circular orbit, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) above the planet.
The goal of the TGO is to look for gases in the Mars atmosphere that might be linked to evidence of life. This includes methane, which at the moment has an unknown origin on the Martian surface, and could be produced by microbial life.
But the orbiter also has an impressive camera, the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS), developed by the University of Bern. That instrument was used to take this image, with scientists testing out how it would perform after a couple of minor software issues.
“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was given the lighting conditions,” Antoine Pommerol, a member of the CaSSIS science team, said in a statement. “It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”
Here’s the image in all its glory:
So what does the image show? Well, it’s looking at a segment of the Korolev Crater (that's the ridge in the middle), which is located high in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The image is actually three images stitched together, about 10 by 40 kilometers (6 by 25 miles). They were taken on April 15.
The dark shadow you can see in the image is the terminator, the line that divides the day side and night side of the planet – it’s roughly 7am locally on Mars in the image. The lighting angle reveals some rather interesting features, including what looks like sandy dunes on the surface. The bright white regions, meanwhile, are ice.
The TGO has four instruments including the camera, which will be used to “sniff” the atmosphere of the planet. Using the camera, it’s then hoped that sources of gases on the surface of Mars can then be identified.
And this is all leading up to the next phase in the ExoMars mission, a joint venture with Roscosmos, which is the ExoMars rover. Scheduled to launch in 2020 and land in early 2021, it will conduct a more thorough search for signs of life on the surface. The TGO will be its relay satellite to Earth.
Until then, we’ll have to make do with rather stunning images like this. And that’s fine by us.