University of Leicester Mars Scientist analyses ‘spectacular views’ of Red Planet

Posted by pt91 at Nov 30, 2016 10:57 AM |
CaSSIS sends first images from Mars orbit

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 30 November 2016

Image showing stereo reconstruction of a small area in Noctis Labyrinthus and altitude map of the region available to download at:

A University of Leicester scientist is involved in analysing the first hi-res images from Mars orbit taken by a new exploratory mission.

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) blasted off in March as part of a preliminary exercise to study where the future ExoMars rover will land, as it searches for signs of microbial life.

Now the Mars Camera, CaSSIS, on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has captured its first high resolution images of the Red Planet. The Swiss-led camera worked almost perfectly and has provided spectacular views of the surface.

CaSSIS (Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System) has been developed by a team from the University of Bern led by Prof. Nicolas Thomas. TGO entered orbit around Mars on 19 October. The camera onboard, CaSSIS, has returned its first images from orbit.

Playing a vital part in the analysis of the incoming Martian data is University of Leicester space scientist Professor John Bridges.

He is part of the CaSSIS camera team – tasked with characterising areas associated with the emission of traces of methane gas which is a potential indicator of biological activity.

Professor Bridges said: “The Trace Gas Orbiter will provide high resolution, stereo, colour coverage of Mars. This will help with landing site characterisation for the rover and will also help us to understand the origin of methane that we have found with Mars Science Laboratory.

“One of the first images we have received was taken at the Periapsis Pass - when we get closest to the planet. It is Noctis Labyrinthus, showing gullies on the side of a valley at the eastern termination of the great Valles Marineris canyons.

“We are currently doing aero braking to get us into our full mapping orbit for 2017.  We will use TGO for imaging (colour and stereo when we are in mapping orbit) but also as a data relay for the ExoMars2020 rover.“

Nicolas Thomas, principal investigator CaSSIS and Director of the Physics Institute at the University of Bern said: “The first images we received are absolutely spectacular ….. and it was only meant to be a test.”

TGO is currently in an elliptical orbit of 240 km x 100’000 km. It makes a fast close fly-by of the surface every 4 days. Two of these close approaches to Mars were selected to test the payload of TGO and the pointing of the spacecraft. The first occurred on 22 November.

Supporting Media

  1. 20161122_162100_Noctis_Labyrinthus_LocalRegion_Crest shows the first stereo reconstruction of a small area in Noctis Labyrinthus. The image gives an altitude map of the region with a resolution of less than 2 metres.
  2. A video showing some of the best results is accessible via YouTube. The link is provided. The video shows some of the images acquired. It also illustrates how CaSSIS takes data by taking images in colour simultaneously. It also includes the spectacular fly-over of Hebes Chasma. This data was the highest resolution acquired by CaSSIS (2.8 m/px) during the closest approach and is shown at half the speed at which the data were acquired.

Technical Background

CaSSIS is a high resolution imaging system designed to complement the data acquired by the other payload on TGO and other Mars orbiters while also enhancing our knowledge of the surface of Mars. The camera is a cooperation between the University of Bern, the Astronomical Observatory of Padua, and the Space Research Center in Warsaw with the support of local industries and funded by the Swiss Space Office (SSO), the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the Polish Space Agency (POLSA).

The structure, onboard computer, and rotation mechanism were built by the University of Bern. The telescope was built in Zurich by RUAG Space AG. The detector and read-out electronics were developed by SELEX-ES in Campi Bisenzio, Italy. The power converter was produced by the Space Research Center in Warsaw. The flight software was developed by SGF Ltd. in Budapest, Hungary.

TGO is currently in a highly elliptical orbit of just over 4 days duration. The spacecraft comes within 250 km of the surface for a very short period but then goes out to over 100’000 km for the planet. CaSSIS has imaged during two of these close approaches to test its capabilities and functions. 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.

The imaging technique used by CaSSIS is called “push-frame”. It takes short exposures (framelets) at a very rapid rate and these images are put together on ground to produce the final product. For Hebes Chasma, the framelets were acquired with 700 microseconds exposure time at a rate of one framelet every 150 milliseconds.

It is now known that Mars is more dynamic than previously thought. Of particular interest to the 25-strong science team from 9 countries (incl. US and Russia) is the chance CaSSIS offers to study changes that occur over the day and over the Martian seasons. Further studies of recently discovered liquid water on the surface will be one of the main aims. CaSSIS will also support the other instruments on TGO by trying to identify sources of trace gases including methane which is a short-lived molecule seen in the Martian atmosphere first by ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft.

ESA ExoMars Website:

CaSSIS Website of the Center of Space and Habitability (CSH):

YouTube Video Link:


Note to Newsdesk: You can contact Professor Bridges via:

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