The Trace Gas Orbiter, part of the European ExoMars mission, has returned some beautiful first images and has also taken its first sniffs of the Martian atmosphere.
“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was given the lighting conditions,” said 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 the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”
The first images show part of the rim of Korolev Crater, in exquisite detail. A portion is shown above; the full-length image can be seen and downloaded here.
The spectrometers on the spacecraft have also now taken their first “sniffs” of the Martian atmosphere. They are designed specifically to study methane and other trace gases. Of particular interest is methane, which has been detected by Earth-based telescopes, orbiters and the Curiosity rover. The results from TGO should help to narrow down, possibly even in the next few months, whether the methane is geological or biological in origin. On Earth it is produced by both, but the majority is from microorganisms. A biological origin would of course be very exciting, but even a geological answer would mean that there are still active processes occurring below the surface, most likely involving heat and water. We will just have to wait and see what TGO finds. Stay tuned!