Spectacular video images of martian landscapes have been sent home by the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.
The European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission is to “search for signs of past and extant life on Mars,” according to information on the ESA website. The orbiter will measure the amount of methane and other trace gasses in the red planet’s atmosphere while tracking their geographical and seasonal distributions to determine whether these gasses derived from biological or geological processes.
ExoMars included two components, the Trace Gas Orbiter and a landing module known as Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli was destroyed during landing Oct. 19 due to a software glitch, but the Trace Gas Orbiter so far is getting high marks from science publications like EarthSky.
In January, the orbiter will perform two maneuvers to position itself to make scientific observations of most of the planet, not just the equatorial area where the Schiaparelli landed. The next phase, which will take up to a year, will take the craft into the upper atmosphere through a series of hundreds of “aerobraking” passes.
“Every time the spacecraft flies through this part of its orbit, it will be slowed down a small amount by air drag. After many hundreds of orbits doing this, it will eventually arrive in its circular science orbit 400 (kilometers) above the surface,” according to information posted on the ESA site.
The orbiter’s scientific mission is slated to begin in March 2018 and will last almost two years, although it carries sufficient fuel to continue operation for many more years. The ExoMars program includes a 2020 rover mission.