Tag Archives: Trace Gas Orbiter

A gathering of dust devils

Dust devil tracks
Click for full resolution image.

A bunch of cool images! The European Space Agency (ESA) today released more than a dozen Martian images taken by the camera on its Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft.

In addition to a snapshot of InSight and its landing area, “The images selected include detailed views of layered deposits in the polar regions, the dynamic nature of Mars dunes, and the surface effects of converging dust devils.” The release also included images showing details of two of Mars’ giant volcanoes, Olympus Mons and Ascraeus Mons.

The image I have highlighted to the right, reduced to post here, shows a spot on Mars where for some unknown reason dust devils love to congregate.

This mysterious pattern sits on the crest of a ridge, and is thought to be the result of dust devil activity – essentially the convergence of hundreds or maybe even thousands of smaller martian tornadoes.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of this image (on the right) with a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image taken in 2009 (on the left).
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Trace Gas Orbiter finds no methane on Mars

The uncertainty of science: Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has failed to detect any methane in Mars’ atmosphere, even though data from Mars Express in 2004 had said it should see some.

The Mars Express orbiter first detected hints of methane in the martian atmosphere in 2004. But some scientists said the orbiter’s instruments that found it—at a level of 10 parts per billion (ppb)—weren’t sensitive enough to produce reliable results. Ten years later, NASA’s Curiosity rover detected a methane spike of 7 ppb from its base in Gale crater, which lasted several months. Several years later, Curiosity’s scientists then discovered a minute seasonal cycle, with methane levels peaking at 0.7 ppb in the late northern summer.

To settle this mystery, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in 2016, this year began to scan the atmosphere for methane. Two of the TGO’s spectrometers—a Belgian instrument called NOMAD and a Russian one called ACS—were designed to detect methane in such low concentrations that researchers were sure they would. Both instruments, which analyze horizontal slices of the martian atmosphere backlit by the sun, are working well, scientists on the team said today at a semiannual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. There’s still some noise to clean up, said Ann Carine Vandaele, NOMAD’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels, in her talk. “But we already know we can’t see any methane.”

The team’s initial results show no detection of methane down to a minute level of 50 parts per trillion, with their observations going down nearly all the way to the martian surface.

The data says that any methane seen on the surface (such as by Curiosity) must be coming from below, not from off world, which in itself is a surprise since the scientists expected some methane to be coming from interplanetary dust. TGO has found none..

There are a lot of uncertainties still, so stay tuned.

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New data says going to Mars involves significant radiation exposure

New data from Trace Gas Orbiter, part of Europe’s ExoMars project, says a journey to Mars will expose humans to significant radiation.

The results imply that on a six-month journey to the Red Planet, and assuming six-months back again, an astronaut could be exposed to at least 60% of the total radiation dose limit recommended for their entire career.

The ExoMars data, which is in good agreement with data from Mars Science Laboratory’s cruise to Mars in 2011–2012 and with other particle detectors currently in space – taking into account the different solar conditions – will be used to verify radiation environment models and assessments of the radiation risk to the crewmembers of future exploration missions.

This data was gathered during the spacecraft’s journey to Mars during a time of falling solar activity. Thus, the radiation exposure came more from cosmic rays than from solar activity.

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Trace Gas Orbiter releases new images

Uzboi Vallis entering Holden Crater

Cool image time! Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, now in its science orbit around Mars, has released some new pictures (the top five images at the link). The image above shows the very long and meandering canyon Uzboi Vallis as it cuts through the rim of Holden Crater, on the right. If you click on the image you can see a higher resolution version.

With this release the European Space Agency does a very poor job of providing relevant information. It does not provide the latitude/longitude of this image, its scale, or a context image. Thus, I can only guess at its precise location.

Regardless, this area, where Uzboi Vallis enters Holden Crater, is one of the candidate landing sites for the American 2020 Mars rover. Uzboi Vallis is thought to have been formed by flowing water as it cut through a number of craters in the southern high plains.

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Trace Gas Orbiter releases its first image

Trace Gas Orbiter's first released image of Korolev Crater

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has released its first image after reaching its planned science orbit.

The image is posted above, reduced in resolution to show here. It shows a portion of the rim of Korolev Crater, a rare large crater located in the vast northern plains of Mars. Because it is so far north, it has ice on the rim which looks almost like glacial flows in this image.

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Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter achieves operational orbit around Mars

After a year of aerobraking to lower its orbit, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter has reached its planned orbit around Mars, and is about to begin studying the red planet’s atmosphere.

The primary goal is to take a detailed inventory of trace gases – those that make up less than 1% of the total volume of the planet’s atmosphere. In particular, the orbiter will seek evidence of methane and other gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological activity.

On Earth, living organisms release much of the planet’s methane. It is also the main component of naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas reservoirs, and a contribution is also provided by volcanic and hydrothermal activity. Methane on Mars is expected to have a rather short lifetime – around 400 years – because it is broken down by ultraviolet light from the Sun. It also reacts with other species in the atmosphere, and is subject to mixing and dispersal by winds. That means, if it is detected today, it was likely created or released from an ancient reservoir relatively recently. Previous possible detections of methane by ESA’s Mars Express and more recently by NASA’s Curiosity rover have been hinted at, but are still the subject of much debate.

The Trace Gas Orbiter can detect and analyse methane and other trace gases even in extremely low concentrations, with an improved accuracy of three orders of magnitude over previous measurements. It will also be able to help distinguish between the different possible origins. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentence is important. Pinpointing a region where methane is concentrated will allow scientists to better understand where it is coming from, and what is causing its release. It could be microbiological life, but it also could be from active volcanic processes. Finding either or both would be significant, to put it mildly.

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ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter images Phobos

As part of its checkout, Europe’s ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter has taken test images of the Martian moon Phobos.

The camera imaged the moon on 26 November from a distance of 7700 km, during the closest part of the spacecraft’s orbit around Mars. TGO’s elliptical orbit currently takes it to within 230–310 km of the surface at its closest point and around 98 000 km at its furthest every 4.2 days. A colour composite has been created from several individual images taken through several filters. The camera’s filters are optimised to reveal differences in mineralogical composition, seen as ‘bluer’ or ‘redder’ colours in the processed image. An anaglyph created from a stereo pair of images captured is also presented, and can be viewed using red–blue 3D glasses.

The images were done to test the spacecraft’s operation, and have apparently shown that it is functioning well.

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ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter takes first pictures

The European Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), part of the ExoMars 2016 mission, has successfully transmitted its first images back to Earth.

I have posted a video they have assembled of the first images below the fold. It is quite spectacular. As for TGO’s future misssion:

In the next months, the team will be starting preparations for the prime mission. “The test was very successful but we have identified a couple of things that need to be improved in the onboard software and in the ground post-processing», says Thomas. “It’s an incredibly exciting time.” Eventually, TGO will use “aerobraking” (skimming into the atmosphere) to slow the spacecraft down and enter a roughly circular orbit 400 km above this surface. This process will start in March 2017 and take around 9-12 months. The primary science phase will start around the end of 2017. CaSSIS will then enter nominal operations acquiring 12-20 high resolution stereo and colour images of selected targets per day.

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Fate of Schiaparelli remains unknown

While Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has successfully gone into orbit around Mars, it remains unknown whether the lander Schiaparelli was able today to land successfully on the surface.

The carrier signal from Schiaparelli recorded by Mars Express abruptly ended shortly before landing, just as the beacon tone received by a ground-based radio telescope in India stopped in real-time earlier today.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, just gave an update on the situation. “We saw the signal through the atmospheric phase — the descent phase. At a certain point, it stopped,” Ferri said. “This was unexpected, but we couldn’t conclude anything from that because this very weak signal picked up on the ground was coming from an experimental tool.

“We (waited) for the Mars Express measurement, which was taken in parallel, and it was of the same kind. It was only recording the radio signal. The Mars Express measurement came at 1830 (CEST) and confirmed exactly the same: the signal went through the majority of the descent phase, and it stopped at a certain point that we reckon was before the landing.

“There could be many many reasons for that,” Ferri said. “It’s clear these are not good signs, but we will need more information.”

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ExoMars 2016 in detail

This Nature article provides a nice summary of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission that on Wednesday will try to place a lander on Mars as well as put an orbiter in orbit.

Neither probe is going to provide many exciting photos. The orbiter, dubbed boringly the Trace Gas Orbiter, is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere, while the lander, Schiaparelli, is essentially a technology test mission for planning and designing what Europe and Russia hope will be a more ambitious lander/orbiter mission in 2020.

Anyone expecting spectacular pictures from Schiaparelli itself might be disappointed — photos will be limited to 15 black-and-white shots of the Martian surface from the air, intended to help piece together the craft’s trajectory. No photos will be taken on the surface, because the lander lacks a surface camera.

Schiaparelli’s instruments will study the Martian atmosphere, including the possible global dust storm that might happen this month but so far has not yet appeared. The instruments will also be able to detect lightning, should it exist on Mars.

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Schiaparelli lander successfully separates from orbiter

In preparation for its Mars landing on October 19, Schiaparelli has successfully separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission.

They had some initial communications issues soon after separation, all of which have now been resolved.

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ExoMars 2016 bearing down on Mars

This article provides a detailed look at Sunday’s arrival of ExoMars 2016 at Mars.

If all goes right the Schiaparelli lander will soft land on the surface while the Trace Gas Orbiter will enter an initial 185 by 60,000 mile orbit, which will slowly be adjusted so that by January it can begin its atmospheric research.

Though the Russian contribution to this mission was only the rocket that sent it to Mars, if the mission succeeds it will be the first time any Mars mission with major Russian participation has succeeded. The failure rate for any Russian effort to go to Mars has been 100%. And it hasn’t been because the missions have been particularly difficult. The majority of their failures occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, even as they were very successfully completing much harder lander missions to Venus.

It has almost as if there is a curse against any Russian attempt to visit the Red Planet. Hopefully, that curse will finally be broken on Sunday.

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