The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has returned the first images of the Red Planet from its new orbit.
The orbiter’s Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, CaSSIS, took this stunning image, which features part of an impact crater, during the instrument’s test period. The spacecraft arrived in the near-circular 400 km altitude orbit around the planet a few weeks ago. The camera system was activated on 20 March and has been undergoing tests in preparation for the start of its main mission on 28 April.
“We transmitted a completely new software version to the instrument at the start of test phase and after a couple of minor issues, the instrument is in good health and ready to work,” says the camera’s Principal Investigator, Nicolas Thomas from the University of Bern in Switzerland.
The example image released today captures a 50 km-wide segment of Korolev Crater, which is located at high northern latitudes. The bright material that can be seen on the rim of the crater is ice.
“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was given the lighting conditions,” says Antoine Pommerol, a member of the CaSSIS science team working on the calibration of the data. “It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of Mars’ carbon dioxide and water cycles.”
The image is a composite of three images in different colours that were taken almost simultaneously by CaSSIS on 15 April. They were then assembled to produce this colour view.
“Our aim is to fully automate the image production process,” says Thomas. “Once we achieve this, we can distribute the data to the community quickly for analysis.”
Western University’s Livio L. Tornabene, a Co-Investigator on CaSSIS, plans to participate regularly throughout the mission in the targeting of the CaSSIS camera system.
Tornabene, an Adjunct Research Professor in Western’s Department of Earth Sciences, has more than 16 years of experience with planetary missions and also maintains involvement as an active science team member for the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
His CaSSIS appointment includes providing leadership for targeting campaigns, target-prioritization and science investigations as the Science Theme Lead for ‘Impact [Cratering] Processes.’
“We have had so few images over the last year or so since arriving at Mars on Oct 2016, let alone an image showing the full, four-colour capabilities of the camera. I was overjoyed and pleased to hear that the first successfully acquired and processed full-colour image of Mars by CaSSIS was based off a location I had suggested,” says Tornabene. “What an honour!”
Tornabene will have the privilege of planning two weeks-worth of CaSSIS images for the first time later this summer. As Tornabene has done in the past with planning images for the HiRISE camera system, he is hopeful to provide students and researchers at Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration with the unique opportunity to gain their first mission experiences by planning future CaSSIS images with him.
The orbiter’s camera is one of four instruments onboard the Trace Gas Orbiter, which also hosts two spectrometer suites and a neutron detector.
The spectrometers officially began their science mission on 21 April with the spacecraft taking its first sniff of the atmosphere to seek out gasses that might be linked to active geological or biological processes. In reality, the ‘sniffing’ is actually the spectrometers looking at the way molecules in the atmosphere absorb or emit the Sun’s light: each has a unique fingerprint that reveals its chemical composition.
A long period of data collection will be needed to bring out the details, especially for particularly rare – or not even yet discovered – ingredients in the atmosphere. Trace gases, as hinted at from their name, are only present in very small amounts: that is, less than 1% of the total volume of the planet’s atmosphere. The camera will help to characterise features on the surface that may be related to trace-gases sources.
“We’re excited to finally be starting collecting data at Mars with this phenomenal spacecraft,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s project scientist. “The test images we’ve seen so far certainly set the bar high as to what we can expect once imaging becomes routine.”
Notes for editors:
The image was released today in parallel with a press briefing at the ILA international air and space show in Berlin today.
IMAGE CAPTION: The ExoMars Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, CaSSIS, captured this view of the rim of Korolev crater (73.3ºN/165.9ºE) on 15 April 2018. It has a scale of 5.08 m/pixel, equating to a width of about 50 km. The image is a composite of three images in different colours that were taken almost simultaneously. They were then assembled to produce this colour view. The image was taken with a ground-track velocity of 2.90 km/s. The solar incidence angle was 76.6º at a local solar time of 07:14:11. (Credits: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS)
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