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Trace Gas Orbiter reaches stable Mars orbit, ready to start science mission

By Brooks Hays
Trace Gas Orbiter reaches stable Mars orbit, ready to start science mission
The Trace Gas Orbiter is ready to begin its scientific mission, said scientists at the European Space Agency. Photo by ESA

April 10 (UPI) -- After a year of aerobraking, the Trace Gas Orbiter has finally reached a stable orbit around Mars and will soon commence with its science mission.

The Trace Gas Orbiter is the European Space Agency's newest Martian probe. It's goal is to survey the Red Planet's atmosphere in search of gases that could offer insights into geological or biological activity happening on Mars' surface.

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For the last 12 months, TGO has been skimming across the top of Mars' atmosphere, using the drag on its solar arrays to reshape its orbit. The probe's once highly elliptical orbit is now rather circular.

"This is a major milestone for our ExoMars program and a fantastic achievement for Europe," Pia Mitschdoerfer, Trace Gas Orbiter mission manager, said in a news release. "We have reached this orbit for the first time through aerobraking and with the heaviest orbiter ever sent to the Red Planet, ready to start searching for signs of life from orbit."

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The probe will begin gathering atmospheric data in less than two weeks.

"We have the sensitivity to detect rare gases in minute proportions, with the potential to discover if Mars is still active today -- biologically or geologically speaking," said Håkan Svedhem, the orbiter's project scientist.

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As the probe's name implies, its instruments are designed to measure trace gases -- those that make up less than 1 percent of the Martian atmosphere -- such as methane. On Earth, methane is primarily produced by living organisms, but geological processes, including volcanic and hydrothermal activity, also release methane into the atmosphere.

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Because methane on Mars is expected to have a relatively short shelf life, roughly 400 years, scientists can be sure any trace amounts detected by the probe were recently released.

Readings by instruments on ESA's Mars Express and NASA's Curiosity rover have previously suggested the presence of methane on Mars, but many scientists remain unconvinced.

The Trace Gas Orbiter's gas-detection instruments are more precise and specifically designed to measure tiny concentrations of gas molecules.

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