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ESA: Europe’s Mars Orbiter Begins First Scientific Observation

Nov 25, 2016 04:10 AM EST
ExoMars 2016 rollout
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is making its first scientific observations on Mars. Science teams are calibrating their instruments and are about to make the first test observations.
(Photo : Stephane Corvaja/ESA via Getty Images)

The European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars orbiter is making its first scientific observations on Mars.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was captured into the Red Planet's orbit on Oct. 19 and is currently circling the planet on a highly elliptical path every 4.2 days. According to the ExoMars team, TGO was scheduled to begin testing and calibrating its science instruments on Nov. 20 until Nov. 28.

"We're excited we will finally see the instruments perform in the environment for which they were designed, and to see the first data coming back from Mars," Håkan Svedhem, ESA's TGO project scientist, said in a statement.

The Trace Gas Orbiter launched with the Schiaparelli demonstrator module on March 14 from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. The two spacecraft comprise the first part of the ExoMars program, a joint mission between ESA and the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos. The TGO's main task is to gain a better understanding of methane and other atmospheric gases on Mars, which could be evidence for possible biological or geological activity on the planet.

The Schiaparelli lander, which is designed to demonstrate ESA's entry, descent, and landing technologies, crashed near its intended landing site on Oct. 19 after a premature release of parachute and firing of thrusters.

Fortunately, TGO aced its orbit insertion burn and is now testing and calibrating its instruments. During the primary mission, TGO's two sets of spectrometers will make complementary measurements to take a detailed inventory of the atmosphere, particularly those gases that are present only in trace amounts.

It is also carrying the neutron detector, which has been collecting data for much of the orbiter's journey to Mars for calibration purposes. During the second orbit, the team also plans to observe Mars' largest moon Phobos. Finally, the camera will also take its first test images on Mars next week.

After the brief science instrument trial period, which also serves to test how well TGO could relay data back to Earth, the ExoMars team will focus on operations and the preparations required for next year's "aerobraking" - where the spacecraft will use friction from the Martian atmosphere to gradually brake and change its orbit.

TGO will begin its science mission in 2018 and will last for two years.

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