ESA’s New Mars Orbiter Prepares For First Science

ESA’s New Mars Orbiter Prepares For First Science

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Trace Gas Orbiter instruments. ESA

The ExoMars orbiter is preparing to make its first scientific observations at Mars during two orbits of the planet starting next week.

The Trace Gas Orbiter, or TGO, a joint endeavour between ESA and Roscosmos, arrived at Mars on 19 October. It entered orbit, as planned, on a highly elliptical path that takes it from between 230 and 310 km above the surface to around 98 000 km every 4.2 days.

The main science mission will only begin once it reaches a near-circular orbit about 400 km above the planet’s surface after a year of ‘aerobraking’ – using the atmosphere to gradually brake and change its orbit. Full science operations are expected to begin by March 2018.

But next week provides the science teams with a chance to calibrate their instruments and make the first test observations now the spacecraft is actually at Mars.

In fact, the neutron detector has been on for much of TGO’s cruise to Mars and is currently collecting data to continue calibrating the background flux and checking that nothing changed after the Schiaparelli module detached from the spacecraft.

It will measure the flow of neutrons from the martian surface, created by the impact of cosmic rays. The way in which they are emitted and their speed on arriving at TGO will tell scientists about the composition of the surface layer.

In particular, because even small quantities of hydrogen can cause a change in the neutron speed, the sensor will be able to seek out locations where ice or water may exist, within the planet’s top 1–2 m.

TGO’s first image of Mars – 13 June 2016. ESA.

TGO’s first image of Mars – 13 June 2016. ESA.

The orbiter’s other three instruments have a number of test observations scheduled during 20–28 November.

During the primary science mission two instrument suites will make complementary measurements to take a detailed inventory of the atmosphere, particularly those gases that are present only in trace amounts.

Of high interest is methane, which on Earth is produced primarily by biological activity or geological processes such as some hydrothermal reactions.

The measurements will be carried out in different modes: pointing through the atmosphere towards the Sun, at the horizon at sunlight scattered by the atmosphere, and looking downwards at sunlight reflected from the surface. By looking at how the sunlight is influenced, scientists can analyse the atmospheric constituents.

In the upcoming orbits there are only opportunities for pointing towards the horizon or directly at the surface. This will allow the science teams to check the pointing of their instrument to best prepare for future measurements.

There is the possibility that they might detect some natural nightside airglow – an emission of light in the upper atmosphere produced when atoms broken apart by the solar wind recombine to form molecules, releasing energy in the form of light.

During the second orbit, the scientists have also planned observations of Phobos, the larger and innermost of the planet’s two moons.

Finally, the camera will take its first test images at Mars next week. In each of the two orbits, it will first point at stars to calibrate itself for measuring the planet’s surface reflectance.

Then it will point at Mars

Given the current elliptical orbit, the spacecraft will be both closer to and further from the planet than during its main science mission. Closest to the planet, it will be travelling faster over the surface than in its final circular orbit, which presents some challenges in timing when the images should be taken.

How TGO's camera takes stereo images. Copyright University of Bern

How TGO’s camera takes stereo images. Copyright University of Bern

The camera is designed to capture stereo pairs: it takes one image looking slightly forwards, and then the camera is rotated to look ‘back’ to take the second part of the image, in order to see the same region of the surface from two different angles. By combining the image pair, information about the relative heights of the surface features can be seen.

Next week, the camera team will be checking the internal timing to help programme commands for future specific scientific observations. The high speed and changing altitude of the elliptical orbit will make stereo reconstruction challenging, but the team will be able to test the stereo rotation mechanism and the various different camera filters, as well as how to compensate for spacecraft orientation with respect to the ground track.

There are no specific imaging targets in mind, although near the closest approach of the first orbit the orbiter will be flying over the Noctis Labyrinthus region and it will attempt to obtain a stereo pair. In the second orbit, it has the opportunity to capture images of Phobos.

Ultimately, the camera will be used to image and analyse features that may be related to the trace gas sources and sinks, to help better understand the range of processes that may be producing the gases. The images will also be used for looking at future landing sites.

“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,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s TGO Project Scientist.

After this brief science instrument demonstration period, which also serves as a test for relaying this data back to Earth, along with data from NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, the focus turns back to operations and the preparations required to for aerobraking next year.

Source: ESA

SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System

SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has outlined his highly ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022 – three years sooner than his previous estimates.

“The reason I am personally accruing assets is to fund this. I really have no other purpose than to make life interplanetary” – Elon Musk

 

You can read more about Musk’s ambitious plans here.

New Holographic Guided Tour On Mars

New Holographic Guided Tour On Mars

NASA and Microsoft have created “Destination: Mars,” a holographic guided tour on Mars, using the same Hololens technology that helps scientists plan the Curiosity rover’s activities.

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Footprints Of A Martian Flood

Footprints Of A Martian Flood

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Arda Valles

Water has left its mark in a variety of ways in this martian scene captured by ESA’s Mars Express.

The region lies on the western rim of an ancient large impact basin, as seen in the context map. The image shows the western part of the Arda Valles, a dendritic drainage system 260 km north of Holden Crater and close to Ladon Valles.

Vast volumes of water once flowed from the southern highlands, carving Ladon Valles and ponding in the large Ladon Basin seen in this image.

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Arda Valles context

The plan views show the striking dendritic drainage pattern of the valleys (left). Many contributing streams merge into tributaries of the main channels before flowing down into the smooth-floored impact basin towards the right.

In the upper centre of the main image – also clearly identified in the topography and anaglyph images – a large mound is seen with an 8.5 km-wide impact crater at its foot. The mound is possibly the remnant of an older impact basin but may also have been influenced by sediments transported by the surrounding streams, building up a fan deposit.

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Arda Valles topography

In the centre right of the image, a large 25 km-wide impact crater has also been filled by thick muddy sediments that later collapsed into the chaotic terrain seen in the crater floor. The jumbled nodules in the crater rim probably indicate the former level of the infilling sediments.

To the top right of the scene, the surface has also broken up into a number of giant polygons, likely linked to the loss of underground ice and the slow evaporation of water that was once ubiquitous in this area.

3D view in Arda Valles

3D view in Arda Valles

The more concentric fracture-like features seen within the smooth floor of the large basin are likely also related to stresses in the surface resulting from the compaction of the vast amount of sediments that infill the basin.

Some of the fractures seem to join the central crater to the smoother basin floor, particularly evident in the perspective view. They could be a later manifestation of stresses due to subsidence or compaction of surface materials.

Finally, in the lower centre of the image, just above the crater at the bottom of the scene and towards the end of the dendritic channels, light-toned and layered deposits have been identified. These are clay minerals, known to be formed in the presence of water.

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