The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has released the first images from its new orbit, taken on April 15 from 400 kilometres above the Martian surface. Here’s the uncropped composite image:
The image reveals 40 kilometres of dust, dirt, and ice (seen in white) along the Korolev impact crater in the planet’s Northern Hemisphere, according to a European Space Agency release. The orbiter is part of the ExoMars program, a collaboration between ESA and the Russian space agency, Roscocmos.
The Trace Gas Orbiter might be taking some incredible images, but it’s doing a lot more than that. The spacecraft has four instruments: the camera, two spectrometers, and a neutron detector. Its purpose is to understand the Martian atmosphere.
The craft has been orbiting Mars since October 2016, but it only recently arrived in the proper orbit to begin performing its science. It seeks to understand the gas in the Martian atmosphere—methane gas, in particular. Methane has been linked to both biological and geological processes, so scientists want to learn about it got there.
As Nature reports, the methane probably shouldn’t even be there, since chemical reactions in the planet’s atmosphere should destroy it. That means that some process could be putting the methane back in.
So, the Trace Gas Orbiter’s job is more than just supplying us content-hungry internet users with amazing pictures. By mapping the methane, it’s going to provide hints of whether there are some other yet-to-be-understood processes occurring on the Martian surface. The photos will aid in spotting the source of the methane. More experiments are on their way, too, including NASA’s Insight Rover slated to launch next week, and the ExoMars Martian Rover planned for 2021.
Amazing pictures are always welcome, of course.