As the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) launched a space probe early this morning from the Russian Kosmodrom in Baikonur, Kazakhstan to study trace gases in the Martian atmosphere, a planetary scientist from Western University eagerly watched online from his home in London, Ont.

Livio Tornabene, an adjunct research professor in Western’s Department of Earth Sciences and core member of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, is Canada’s representative amongst an international team of investigators that will exploring Mars through the Colour and Surface Stereo Imaging System (or CaSSIS). CaSSIS is one of the scientific instruments mounted onboard ExoMars’ Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). The system includes a four-colour, high-resolution, 3D-capable camera.

The overall mission of TGO is to study atmospheric trace gases (emphasis on gases less than one per cent of concentration in the Martian atmosphere) and investigate their possible connection to the surface and subsurface of Mars, while the main objectives of CaSSIS are to identify and characterize these surface/subsurface sites as potential sources and sinks of trace gases, and to identify the dynamic surface processes that may contribute to the behavior of these trace gases in the Martian atmosphere.

CaSSIS will provide high-resolution 3D colour images of the surface of Mars that will help us to understand the processes occurring at the surface (or within the subsurface) that may be contributing to trace gases in the Martian atmosphere.

The possible detection of methane gas in the atmosphere was the impetus behind the development of this mission by ESA and Roscosmos. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), who is also collaborating on TGO, is funding and supporting Tornabene’s involvement in the mission.

By using previous Mars images and data, Tornabene and his team are currently modeling and simulating what CaSSIS images should look. TGO arrives in Mars’ gravitational path later this year, and begins its full investigation after it moves into the correct orbit in Dec 2017.

“These image simulations will help us to determine the best modes of operation and will greatly assist in assessing how well CaSSIS will perform on specific investigations of surface processes,” explains Tornabene. “CaSSIS images will also be used to not only plan future robotic missions, but also human-led missions to Mars.”

Tornabene is also actively involved with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (or HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – now celebrating its 10th [Earth] year anniversary in orbit. Over the last year, Tornabene has included six Western students in the planning and acquisition of over 500 HiRISE images.

“This not only prepares some Western students for involvement with CaSSIS, but also for future involvement in other missions to Mars, and beyond,” says Tornabene.

For more information on the TGO mission, please visit

For more on the science objectives of the CaSSIS camera, please visit and

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