The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, circling the Red Planet since 2019, has returned a wealth of images of Mars, including a photograph of the InSight Lander on the Martian surface. This marks the first time a European spacecraft has ever photographed a spacecraft on the surface of Mars.
The ESA-Roscosmos Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) launched from Earth on March 14, 2016, headed for Mars. The vehicle arrived at the Red Planet just over seven months later, on October 19. Once there, the spacecraft carried out aerobraking operations, refining its orbit in preparation for its main scientific mission which began in April 2018. Part of that mission is relaying data from InSight to mission controllers on Earth.
“Because of this function, to avoid uncertainties in communications, we had not been able to point the camera towards the landing site so far — we had to wait until the landing site passed directly under the spacecraft to get this image,” said Nicolas Thomas from the University of Bern in Switzerland.
Together with the InSight rover, this new image from TGO shows a dark area formed when retrorockets slowed InSight for its touchdown on Mars. InSight’s heat shield can be seen at the edge of a crater, as well as the backshell, used during landing on November 26, 2018.
The Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) was utilized to spot the vehicle as it explored the Elysium Plantia region on Mars.
A wealth of other photographs taken of the Red Planet by ExoMars TGO have just been released by the ESA. Among these images are photographs of the polar regions of Mars, dunes on the surface of the planet, and Martian dust devils.
“This stunning image showcase really demonstrates the scientific potential we have with TGO’s imaging system,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s TGO project scientist.
At the time TGO took its long-distance photograph, InSightwas hammering a probe into the Martian soil, testing the geology in the area.
The orbiter will also be utilized to take photographs of the Rosalind Franklin rover, named in honor of one of the greatest geneticists of the 20th Century. Designed by the European Space Agency, this vehicle will search the Red Planet, searching for signs of ancient life, after touching down on the Martian surface in March 2021. The ESA orbiter will also assist that mission by serving as a relay station for communications with Earth.
These photographs, as well as future images to be taken by the TGO orbiter, will be utilized in determining landing spots for future missions.