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Trace Gas Orbiter sends its first color view of Mars

Korolev Crater
An image from the CaSSIS camera on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter shows the rim of Korolev Crater on Mars. Click on the image for a larger version. (ESA / Roscosmos / CaSSIS Image)

The first color image to come from a camera aboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in its Mars-mapping orbit shows the ice-coated rim of Korolev Crater in sharply shadowed detail.

“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was, given the lighting conditions,” Antoine Pommerol, a member of the science team for the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System, said today in a news release. “It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a mission jointly supported by the European and Russian space agencies, is built to measure the composition of Mars’ thin atmosphere with unprecedented accuracy. Its top task is to look for methane and other trace gases that could hint at biological or geological activity.

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Mars orbiter spots blackened remains of lander

Mars orbiter image
This image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the landing zone for the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe on Mars. Analysts say the bright spot shows where the lander’s parachute fell, and the black spot shows where the lander hit. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has caught sight of the blackened spot where a European lander apparently hit the Martian surface, providing the first visual evidence that the Schiaparelli probe did indeed bite the dust.

Before-and-after pictures from the orbiter’s low-resolution Context Camera also showed the appearance of a brand-new bright spot in the expected landing zone in Mars’ Meridiani Planum region. That bright spot is thought to be Schiaparelli’s 40-foot-wide parachute, which was apparently ejected earlier than intended.

The “before” image was taken in May, and the “after” image was taken on Oct. 20, a day after the lander’s descent.

The pictures will help guide follow-up observations to be made next week using MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE. The European Space Agency’s ExoMars team says even the low-resolution imagery is consistent with a high-speed impact that would have destroyed the lander.

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What went wrong with Europe’s Mars lander?

Schiaparelli lander
An artist’s conception shows the Schiaparelli lander at the end of its parachute. (Credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander apparently crashed after its parachute was ejected too early and its thrusters switched off too soon, according to data relayed back from its orbiting mothership.

“We have data coming back that allow us to fully understand the steps that did occur, and why the soft landing did not occur,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, said today in a news release.

However, ESA emphasized that the analysis was still continuing, and the conclusions were only preliminary.

The good news is that the saucer-shaped lander’s mothership, the Trace Gas Orbiter, entered its intended orbit around Mars and is in good health.

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Orbiter reaches Mars, but lander is lost

Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander
An artist’s conception show the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter releasing the Schiaparelli lander for its descent to Mars. (Credit: D. Ducros / ESA)

For the first time in 13 years, the European Space Agency has put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars – and has sent a piggyback lander to an unknown fate on the Red Planet’s surface.

Flight controllers at ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, cheered the news that the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was back in contact after rounding Mars today. The last time an ESA orbiter arrived at the Red Planet was back in 2003, with Mars Express.

“We have two satellites around Mars,” flight director Michel Denis declared.

Denis and the rest of his team were still waiting to hear from the Schiaparelli lander, which was launched along with the orbiter in March, and was released on Oct. 16 for its descent.

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