BERLIN – Europe's Mars Express orbiter (search) has sent back its first high-resolution pictures of the planet's surface, capturing in detail part of a huge Martian canyon, the European Space Agency (search) said Monday.
Mars Express went into orbit around the Red Planet on Christmas Day on the first European Mars (search) mission. About two weeks later, NASA landed its Spirit rover on the Martian surface. Both missions are searching for signs of past or present life.
Over the past week, European controllers have focused on calibrating its on-board instruments -- including, in addition to its high-resolution stereo camera, a powerful radar to search beneath the surface for signs of water or ice that may once have sustained living organisms.
On Monday, they published the camera's spectacular first image, shot from 170 miles above the surface and showing a bright-red cross-section of Mars' Valles Marineris -- the planet's "Grand Canyon."
The ESA described the first pictures as "very promising."
The image, it said, shows "a landscape which has been predominantly shaped by the erosional action of water," with surface features including mountain ranges, valleys and mesas.
Mars Express is set to orbit the planet for at least one Martian year -- almost two Earth years.
The orbiter carries two-thirds of the European Mars mission's experiments, among them instruments that will search for ultraviolet atmosphere.
Carrying its companion Beagle 2 lander, Mars Express was launched last June from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The lander, released toward the surface by the orbiter Dec. 19, hasn't been heard from since its own scheduled landing on Christmas Day.