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The ExoMars Lander May Have Crashed, but the Mission’s Orbiter Is Nailing It

“We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment.”

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) sent back its first images and data from Mars, captured during the orbiter's close pass with the planet on November 22. The European Space Agency (ESA) released a video highlight reel of the new visual data on Tuesday, which includes timelapses taken at a distant 5,300 kilometers (3,293 miles) and sharp close-ups snapped at altitudes of 235 kilometers (146 miles) with high resolutions of 2.8 meters per pixel.

Video: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniB/YouTube

These initial images were taken primarily to test out and calibrate the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) onboard the orbiter. The camera not only performed properly, it also produced stunning surface observations, according to CaSSIS mission lead Nicolas Thomas, who is based at the University of Bern.

"The first images we received are absolutely spectacular—and it was only meant to be a test," Thomas told Universe Today. "We saw Hebes Chasma at 2.8 metres per pixel. That's a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 kilometers per hour and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich."

The TGO's successful insertion into Mars orbit on October 19 was overshadowed somewhat by the crash-landing of its partner spacecraft, the Schiaparelli lander, which was destroyed on impact due to a software glitch.

But as emphasized by mission leads, the orbiter is the real MVP of the ExoMars project, both in terms of cost and scientific potential. Schiaparelli was primarily a test platform, designed to operate on the Martian surface for a brief week-long lifespan. In contrast, the TGO is expected to study Mars from orbit until 2022, with a special focus on detecting gases that make up less than one percent of its atmospheric volume, such as methane, water vapour, nitrogen dioxide, and acetylene. These trace gases have the potential to reveal biosignatures, or signs of life, on the planet.

READ MORE: The First Time Humans Crashed a Probe on Mars

The orbiter's freshly released images confirm that its camera is functioning properly, which is some much-needed good news for ESA and Roscosmos, its Russian partner on ExoMars.

"We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment, and this first impression gives a fantastic preview of what's to come when we start collecting data for real at the end of next year," said Håkan Svedhem, ESA's TGO Project Scientist, in a statement.

"We have identified areas that can be fine-tuned well in advance of the main science mission, and we look forward to seeing what this amazing science orbiter will do in the future."

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