The European Space Agency-Roscosmos ExoMars spacecraft has sent its first starry test image back to Earth as it makes its way to the Red Planet. And, it’s a sight to behold!
The grainy view, the European Space Agency (ESA) reports, is of a randomly selected portion of the sky close to the southern celestial pole and is composed of two frames which were taken in slightly different directions using the camera's rotation mechanism.
The Proton rocket, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, is carrying the Trace Gas Orbitor to examine Mars' atmosphere while a lander dubbed Schiaparelli will detach and descend to the surface of the fourth planet from the Sun when they make their grand entry in October.
TGO's high-resolution camera, which was switched on for the first time on April 7, is working well, the ESA reported Thursday.
"The initial switch-on went quite smoothly and so far things look good," Nicolas Thomas from the University of Bern in Switzerland, and the camera's principal investigator said.
"Although it was not designed to look at faint stars, these first images are very reassuring. Everything points to us being able to get good data on Mars."
When the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli arrive within Mars' orbit in October, all going to plan, the TGO will study the distribution of rare atmospheric gases with its sophisticated sensors. Of particular interest, the ESA reports is methane, which could point to active geological or biological processes on the planet.
Once landed on the Red Planet's surface, the TGO, with its state-of-the-art trace gas sensors, as well as an atomic particle detector that will have the ability to identify buried water-ice deposits, the craft will set off to study Mars' other surface features, including those containing gas sources such as volcanoes.
During its time on the surface of the Red Planet, TGO's travel partner, Schiaparelli, will conduct an array of environmental studies, including measuring electric fields that, in combination with measurements of atmospheric dust concentration, will provide new insight into the role of electric forces and dust lifting, a possible trigger for dust storms, the ESA reported.
All eyes will be on ExoMars' next milestone when the spacecraft makes a major course correction in July, which is set to line the spacecraft up for its arrival on the Red Planet on October 19.
March 14 marks one month since ExoMars blasted off from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan. Since its launch TGO and Schiaparelli have travelled more than 83 million kilometers (51 million miles) of their 500 million kilometer journey to Earth's nearest planetary neighbor, Mars.
DW was at the ESA for the launch of the mission to our planetary neighbor, Mars - take a listen to our broadcast below.