Euro-Russian spacecraft ExoMars sends first pictures home

AFP , Thursday 14 Apr 2016

An artist's impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. (Photo: AFP)

The Euro-Russian spacecraft ExoMars, launched towards the Red Planet last month, has sent home its first pictures from space and is in "excellent health", the European Space Agency said Thursday.

Launched on March 14 on a Russian Proton rocket, the craft is designed to "smell" Mars' atmosphere for gassy evidence that life once existed on Earth's neighbour, or may do so still.

The probe's high-resolution camera was switched on for the first time on April 7, and took its first grainy, black and white snapshots of space.

"These first images are very reassuring. Everything points to us being able to get good data at Mars," said Nicolas Thomas from the University of Bern in Switzerland, camera principal investigator.

With its suite of high-tech instruments, the probe should arrive at the Red Planet on October 19 after a journey of 496 million kilometres (308 million miles).

"All systems have been activated and checked out, including power, communications, startrackers, guidance and navigation, all payloads and Schiaparelli," ESA spacecraft operations manager Peter Schmitz said.

Its main mission is to photograph the Red Planet and analyse its air. The spacecraft is also piggybacking a lander dubbed Schiaparelli, which it will release onto Mars for a few days in October.

Schiaparelli will test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for a subsequent rover landing on Mars, a feat the ESA said "remains a significant challenge".

ExoMars is a two-part collaboration between the ESA and Russia's Roscosmos space agency.

This first part is dubbed ExoMars 2016.

The second, the Mars rover phase, was originally scheduled for launch in 2018, but the ESA has said it will likely be delayed over money worries.

There are high expectations, though, from the first phase -- basically to determine whether Mars is "alive".

The probe will seek to analyse methane, a gas which on Earth is created in large part by living microbes, and traces of which were observed on previous Mars missions.

Methane is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation within a few hundred years, which the ESA has said implies that in Mars' case "it must still be produced today".

But by what?

The probe will analyse Mars' methane in more detail than any previous mission, according to the ESA, to try and determine its likely origin.

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