Mars Orbiter Snaps Stunning Photos of Its New Home

Europe's Trace Gas Orbiter is designed to unravel the Red Planet's atmospheric chemistry, but it's got a sharp new camera as well.

Scientists got a tantalizing preview of what to expect when Mars' newest satellite, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), begins work in about a year.

During its first close pass by Mars since slinging itself into orbit on Oct 19, Europe's TGO spacecraft captured 11 images with its Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System, or CaSSIS. The pictures, taken on Nov. 22 and released Tuesday, were intended to test the camera's various operating modes, the European Space Agency said in a press release.

At closest approach, TGO was 146 miles (235 km) above Mars' Hebes Chasma region, located just north of the Valles Marineris canyons.

"These are some of the closest images that will ever be taken of the planet by TGO, given that the spacecraft's final orbit will be at around 400 km (249 miles) altitude," ESA said.

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"The first images we received are absolutely spectacular - and it was only meant to be a test," physicist Nicolas Thomas, with the University of Bern, which built the camera, said in a separate statement.

The CaSSIS image of Mars' Hebes Chasma, taken at 2.8 meters per pixel, resolution is "a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 kilometers per hour (9,320 mph) and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich," Thomas said.

TGO will spend about a year aerobraking through Mars' thin atmosphere to trim its speed and shift its path until eventually settling into a circular, nearly polar orbit.

CaSSIS is one of four science instruments aboard the satellite, which ESA built in partnership with Russia. The primary goal of the mission is to inventory rare gases in Mars' atmosphere, with particular attention to methane, which on Earth is strongly tied to life.

Image (top): Trace Gas Orbiter shows off its 7.2 meter per pixel camera in one of its first images of Mars. The camera captured a 1.4 km crater (center, left) on the rim of a much larger crater near the equator. Image (bottom): The first 3-D reconstruction of a small area in a region called Noctis Labyrinthus. The image gives an altitude map of the region with a resolution of less than 20 meters. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniBE

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