VMC Imaging Campaign – making the grade

Today's blog post announces the list of proposals that have met the minimum requirements for consideration as VMC imaging targets.

As of 12:00CET today, the open period for VMC Imaging Campaign proposals is closed.

ApprovedWe are incredibly delighted with all the proposals (44 were submitted!), each of which demonstrated imagination and a real enthusiasm for Mars. Thank you to everyone who took the time to submit.

Of these 44, 25 have met the minimum requirements for consideration. Congratulations to those who made the grade! (The full list is at the bottom of this post.)

Making the grade

19 proposals have been rejected, as they failed to meet the minimum requirements, e.g., were not submitted by a group, or were submitted from someone from an ineligible country. We've already emailed some of those proposers to tell the news, but this blog post is the 'official' announcement: If your proposal is not in the listing below, then you have been rejected as failing to meet the minimum requirements.

Of the remaining 25 valid proposals, that is, the ones in the list below, we intend to try and accommodate as many as possible, but some may yet have to be dropped. This is not because of your efforts, but instead the decision will come down simply to us having a strictly limited observation period and various restrictions relating to spacecraft safety (see our earlier posts: Why conjunction frees up VMC time and VMC Imaging Campaign).

The next step for the Mars Express team is to assess the proposals that are considered to be the most promising (in terms of requested observation target and proposed group project) and work out how many of these observations we will be able to carry out.

How it's done downtown

This is precisely what professional scientists face when requesting an observation from any spacecraft!

They submit their requests and the mission planners, flight dynamics teams and flight control teams try to carry out as many of these as possible.

As well as checking if a target is in view and safe to observe, there are other factors that have to be taken into account mostly to do with our 'budgets'. Now by budget we don’t necessarily mean money – but the analogy is the same – you can only spend what is available. We have many budgets, but the main two in this case are the power budget and the data link budget.

To briefly explain these:

  • Power Budget – as Mars in in a more elliptical orbit than Earth, its distance from the Sun varies significantly over the course of a Martian year (and, thus, so does that of Mars Express), meaning that our solar arrays generate less power and so less is available to supply the instruments at certain time.Also, reduced sunlight makes the spacecraft colder, meaning more power has to be supplied to the heaters, further reducing what is left. We also have eclipse seasons, where the spacecraft passes through the shadow of Mars. During these periods, MEX has to rely on batteries and then recharge them once it orbits back into sunlight. This further reduces the remaining margin.
  • Link Budget – For communication purposes, we often talk about the distance between Mars and Earth in 'one-way light time'. This is the amount of time our radio signals take to travel from Earth to Mars at the speed of light.As both planets circle the Sun at different rates, this can vary from about 5 to over 21 minutes. So how does this affect science? To use an analogy, if you stand close to someone, you can speak quite quickly and be understood -- but if you are at opposite ends of the street, you’ll have to shout slowly to get your message across.It’s similar for us; at the farthest point from Earth, the MEX data rates can be 10x lower (than when nearest), meaning we either need 10x as much time to communicate with Earth, or produce only 1/10th of the science (or strike a balance in between).

Striking balances between the various budgets  is a big part of what our mission planners have to do and this observation campaign is no different. We’ll do our best but won’t be able to confirm anything for a few more weeks.

Accepted for planning consideration

Here’s the list of teams that we are going to advance to the next planning stage. Note that some of you have chosen similar targets, or observations that may be combined, which does make things easier from our side. Listing is in no particular order.

Name Country Target
HTBLA Kaindorf, Kaindorf an der Sulm Austria North Pole
Vulkanlandsternwarte, Feldbach Austria Kasei Vallis
Sterrenwacht de Polderster, Assende Belgium Phillips Crater (South Pole)
Children’s Club Reegulus, University of Tartu Museum, Old Observatory Estonia Terra Meridiani
Friedrich-Koenig-Gymnasium (FKG), Würtsburg Germany Hypanis Vallis or Oxia Planum
Grundschule Klosterfelde Germany Hellas Planitia
State International School Seeheim Germany Global view of Mars
Sternwarte Siebengebirge, Bad Honnef Germany Olympus Mons and Tharsis region
Friends of Astronomy Club, Thessaloniki Greece Olympus Mons
Associazione Astronomica Antares, Foligno Italy Cavi Angusti
Cosmoscuola, INAF Astronomical Observatory of Rome Italy Candor Chasma
Riga State Gymnasium No. 1 Latvia Ares Vallis
Innovation Centre Mill of Knowledge, Toruń Poland Valles Marineris
Lisbon School of Education (ESELx) Portugal Phlegra Montes
Curiosity Laboratory, Asociacion Codec de Madrid Spain Aeolis Mons
IES Alpujarra, Órgiva Spain Olympus Mons
Hathern C of E Primary School, Loughborough UK Meridiani Planum
Aspiration Creation, Dunwoody USA North Pole
Mars Without Borders, Los Angeles USA (CA) Valles Marinaris, Olympus Mons, Meridiani Planum or Schiaparelli
Cub Scout Pack 711 Jupiter Elementary School Florida USA (FL) Mars in half phase showing good shadows.
Out Of This World Space Program, Mariettta USA (GA) Elysium Mons
School for Tomorrow, Rockville USA (MD) Phobos
Emma C. Chase Elementary School, Wurtsboro USA (NY) Noctis Labyrinthus or Kasei Valles
Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York USA (NY) Valles Marineris
Borinquen Academy of Fine Arts USA(PR) (project does not require specific target)

Well done to all of you for advancing to this stage and we hope to try and squeeze in as many of these observations as we can!

Announcement of accepted proposals

We are aiming to have the final list of accepted proposals ready to announce within approximately 8 May, and ideally even sooner than that. We'll update you on planning progress in a couple weeks.

Watch this space!

And thanks again to everyone who submitted observation requests.

What is VMC?

Why is there a webcam orbiting Mars?

We often refer to VMC as the 'Mars Webcam' since the images it takes are comparable in resolution and colour depth to those of a standard home webcam that you would have bought from your local PC store back in 2003 when the spacecraft was launched.

However don't let the Webcam tag fool you! It's a serious piece of kit with a very real engineering purpose.

vmcThat purpose is to help overcome one of the challenges faced when flying spacecraft: we cant actually see them.

We overcome this problem by having huge amounts of telemetry data transmitted back to us here on Earth to give us details about what every component on board the spacecraft is doing.

However, this telemetry is in effect just numbers on our computer screens that come from the sensors all over the spacecraft.

whatisVMC-8For example, if we were to command the solar arrays to turn, we can say that we can 'see the arrays turning'. What we really mean is that on the mission control system computer screen, we can see that the parameters that correspond to readings from sensors on the solar array drive motors reporting that the voltage going to the motors is changing, and that the power being consumed by the motors is changing. Finally, we can see that the power being generated by the arrays themselves is also changing. The changing numbers on the screen are all we have to go on.

This is a limitation we accept as part of sending things out into space and operating them remotely. It also shows why the telemetry sent back to the mission control centre is so vital to understanding what the spacecraft is actually doing.

However, there are occasions on some missions where an activity considered so critical that telemetry alone is not enough, we need to be able to really see – visually – what is going on so we can be sure it has worked correctly, or if there is a problem, to be able to see what has happened to enable us to try and fix it.

This is where cameras like VMC come in. Indeed, the clue is in the name: VMC = Visual Monitoring Camera.

For Mars Express, the part of our mission that required the use of a camera was the release of the Beagle 2 Lander.

To enable Beagle 2 to reach its desired landing site it was necessary to detach the lander from Mars Express at a very precise time and in a precise speed and direction. So that we could check this, VMC was used to take a number of images during Beagle 2's departure from Mars Express.

whatisVMC-7

Separation of Beagle 2

Separation of Beagle 2

These images were then analysed by the flight dynamics team here at ESOC who were able to work out from them that the release had gone perfectly and Beagle 2 was on the correct course for the surface.

Their assessment was confirmed earlier this year when the lander was found on the surface well within the target landing area.

Mars Express is not the only ESA spacecraft to be fitted with a monitoring camera.

The 4 Cluster spacecraft were launched in pairs with one spacecraft attached to the other. The top spacecraft in each pair was fitted with a camera.

This was used to monitor the crucial point at which the 2 spacecraft separated from each other. As this happened in low earth orbit the pictures that were very spectacular.

whatisVMC-6 whatisVMC-5The XMM space telescope also has monitoring cameras installed. they are looking along the spacecraft towards the service module.

They are aimed in this direction as their purpose was to allow the flight control team to check the unfolding of the spacecraft's solar arrays.

whatisVMC-4 whatisVMC-3Sentinel 1a which was launched last year has cameras to check the deployment of both the solar panels and its long radar boom.
whatisVMC-2Finally, Whilst not a simple monitoring camera, Rosetta used its main science camera to image the Philae lander as it departed for the surface of 67P.

This was far more than just a good bye image from one spacecraft to another as this was able to show the lander team that Philae's landing gear had unfolded correctly.
whatisVMC-1-- Simon Wood
Spacecraft Operations Engineer, Mars Express

REPLAY: VMC Imaging Campaign video tutorial

Join us for an #ESAHangout - 19 March 2015

Watch the replay

Here is Andy's presentation file, illustrating the typical resolutions of VMC images

Original post below


 

As part of the #VMCschools public observation campaign, all registered participants – plus those who are thinking of registering – are invited to join the Mars Express mission control team in an #ESAHangout via Google+.

The video hangout will run about 60-75 minutes, and will include a live tutorial covering:

  • The Mars Express spacecraft and mission
  • The Visual Monitoring Camera, the 'Mars Webcam' – how it works and what it can see and do
  • Review of possible observation targets on Mars that you can request
  • The #VMCschools public observation campaign: what/when/how/who, limited number of slots; what you are expected to do
Andy Johnstone Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Andy Johnstone Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Mars Express engineer Andy Johnstone, above in the Main Control Room, will be joined by Simon Wood, also on the MEX team, and ESA Mission Analyst Michael Khan, both pictured below; Daniel Scuka will moderate and host.

Michael Khan Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Michael Khan Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Simon Wood Credit: dpa

Simon Wood Credit: dpa

In the second half of the #ESAHangout, we'll respond to questions from the public, giving priority to any submitted by already-registered participants. Questions may be posted as follows:

  1. Tweet questions using the #vmcschools hashtag
  2. Post questions in the ESAHangout Google+ event page
  3. Post questions in the ESAHangout YouTube event page

We'll do our best to answer all questions and ensure that your VMC observation proposal is technically possible and that you have a suitable project plan in place.

Please join us on 19 March!

Why conjunction frees up VMC time

You may be wondering why the VMC camera will be free for public imaging requests on 25-28 May – and hence why we can run the VMC Imaging Campaign. Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Engineer Andy Johnstone provided this reply.

The present conjunction period, when the Sun will block the direct line of sight between Mars and Earth, starts on Friday, 28 May, and lasts about five weeks until 1 July; the conjunction point happens on 14 June. As we've described before here in the blog, routine science payload observations are carefully planned well in advance.In this case, there is a boundary on the planning period (which are normally 28 days) that ends four days before 28 May, and it was decided by the operations and science planners not to conduct science during only four days.

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars. TGO will be launched in 2016 with Schiaparelli, the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. It will search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes on Mars. TGO will also serve as a communications relay for the rover and surface science platform that will be launched in 2018. Credit: ESA–D. Ducros

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars. TGO will be launched in 2016 with Schiaparelli, the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. It will search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes on Mars. TGO will also serve as a communications relay for the rover and surface science platform that will be launched in 2018. Credit: ESA–D. Ducros

So, while this frees up a rare time slot when no science will take place, and while VMC therefore may be used for this valuable public and educational outreach activity, this isn't the only activity happening during the four days. We are spacecraft engineers, after all, and our goal is always to test, optimise and maximise the performance of our spacecraft.

We are performing other activities in this 4 day period:

  • Monday-Wednesday:  Tests with MELACOM (our UHF radio used to communicate with landers on the surface) as part of preparations for Mars Express to support ExoMars Entry Descent Module (EDM) landing next year.
  • Tuesday: A test for the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission, a partnership between ESA and Russia's Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. They want to prove that we can perform ground station swaps without bringing down the carrier. We are going to let them use MEX as a test vessel.
  • Wednesday: Performance tests on our solar arrays and batteries (last done just after the passage of comet Siding Spring in October 2014) and testing of redundant heater lines. We may also perform a special pointing with all instruments OFF in order to get a more accurate model of how much heating comes from the Sun, and how much is from internal components.
  • Wednesday-Thursday: Loading of the most vital commands to configure the craft for the Solar conjunction period. These relate to our attitude and orbit control system (AOCS). For this conjunction, we will be leaving our X- and S-band transmitters ON throughout as we do not have any power limitations this year.
  • Thursday:  A full performance check of the Transponders (radio transmitter/receivers) in both X- and S-band; this takes advantage of us having some long passes with no science data to be dumped. We can see how they both behave at the same distance on the same station with the same weather.

So, VMC is not the only valuable activities taking place in the run up to the conjunction period. We are using this opportunity to carry out lots of tests and it is likely that we may end up with more. But, with VMC, we are using some spare time in between operational activities to give something back to the public – especially students and teachers – who are some of our strongest supporters!

 

VMC Imaging Campaign

Welcome to the VMC Imaging Campaign!

Information for schools, astronomy clubs, science centres and any other eligible group wishing to take part. Official hashtag: #vmcschools

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 04:24 CEST on 22 September 2014. This image was acquired by the low-resolution VMC camera on board Mars Express at 14:50 CEST on 20 September, when MAVEN was an estimated 312,000 km from Mars. Credit: ESA/MEX/VMC

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 04:24 CEST on 22 September 2014. This image was acquired by the low-resolution VMC camera on board Mars Express at 14:50 CEST on 20 September, when MAVEN was an estimated 312,000 km from Mars. Credit: ESA/MEX/VMC

Mars is approaching solar conjunction where it will be on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth; this will affect communication with the spacecraft for a period of about five weeks and so science observations have to be stopped.

For this particular Solar conjunction, running for about five weeks between 28 May and 1 July, the Mars Express team will be stopping science four days earlier than usual for operational reasons. Part of this time is to be used to run tests on spacecraft subsystems, but we have an exciting plan with what to do with the remainder! (See details via Why conjunction frees up VMC time?)


How would you like to be a scientist on a Mars mission?


 

We would like to offer the opportunity for about eight (final number depends on the proposed targets) schools or other youth clubs/organisations to propose observations to be performed with the VMC camera (in principle, almost any large feature on the martian surface can be imaged) and then complete and submit a project report with their results; we'll publish them here in the MEX blog. (See official announcement  plus link to terms, conditions and the registration form here.)

The closing date for proposals is 12:00 CET on 27 March 2015 – which is not far off, so you’ll need to work quickly if you wish to be involved.

So what do you need to know?

First of all, you need to understand a bit about the VMC camera. It is our most basic instrument, being basically a low-resolution webcam that was originally only to be used to record the release of the Beagle 2 lander. Since then, we have used it to take some very impressive images of Mars, its moons and atmosphere as well as other planets. Although lacking the extreme resolution of the professional HRSC camera on board Mars Express, it does allow the entire martian disk to be observed in a single image. Go through our Flickr library to get a good idea of what we can do with it.

The VMC webcam provides images of Mars having about the same quality as those provided by the ESA/NASA HUbble telescope. Image credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC/ Humboldt Gymnasium, Vaterstetten

The VMC webcam provides images of Mars having about the same quality as those provided by the ESA/NASA HUbble telescope. Image credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC/ Humboldt Gymnasium, Vaterstetten

In fact, VMC provides images of Mars having about the same resolution and quality as those obtained by the 'professional' ESA/NASA Hubble orbiting observatory!

MEX Orbit

Next, you need to know a bit about the orbit of Mars Express. We don’t expect you to attempt any of the incredible mathematics that our Flight Dynamics team here at ESOC perform on a routine basis, do but you need to understand that Mars Express has a highly elliptical orbit, which – combined with the rotation of Mars – means that not all of the planet's surface will be visible to the camera during the available observing slots during 25-27 May.

We’ll make this easier for you by supplying orbit files to use with the fantastic (and free) Celestia software. These will help you in working out which observations are possible (Editor's note: download a RAR compressed archive here - open with any common compression tool like WINZIP – detailed installation instructions here).

Take a look at the VMC full-orbit animation, derived from Celestia, which is a great way to visualise what VMC can see during 25-27 May.

MEX operations

You will also need to know a bit (but not too much!) about Mars Express. Keep in mind that although we are inviting you to point Mars Express at a target of your choice (the VMC camera is fixed in position, so to point it, we slew the entire craft), we have many rules and restrictions for ensuring the safety of the spacecraft that cannot be violated.

We will take care of this within the MEX flight control team here at ESOC for you, but there are a few obvious things that you need not request, such as pointing toward the Sun or asking for two targets in quick succession (we avoid turning the spacecraft too quickly). Also, as Mars (and hence Mars Express) is almost at its furthest distance from Earth, the amount of data we can return is very limited (which is why the professional instrument payload is being switched off in the first place), and so we will not accept any long observation proposals (this also enables a larger number of short observation slots, giving as many schools or clubs as possible an opportunity to carry out observations).

The Red Planet

Some knowledge of Mars is also important – as we assume that is at what you will be pointing VMC. In principle, you could request to point VMC away from Mars, but, as it is a low-resolution device, we don't think you'll see that much (we did get a misty shot of Earth one time!). We will leave this for you to research on your own. There are many sources of information on the Main ESA website, the Internet and in your library that you will want to look in to in order to come up with a good proposal.

You can also find many examples of past school and astronomy club projects completed using VMC images, many of which are excellent! (Here's one from the Humboldt Gymnasium, Vatterstetten, Germany) The difference with this campaign is that you can request pointings at specific features from much lower altitudes than has ever been done before, so yours might be even better! :-)

Tutorials

Emily Lakdawalla, from the Planetary Society, has posted online a series of excellent tutorials on working with space images, including the VMC. And you can find all archived VMC images for practice via the Mars Webcam blog and Flickr.

... and the fine print

Mars Express is an operational mission, and considerations of spacecraft safety and the primary professional science mission always come first. We may have to amend, change, or cancel the VMC Imaging Campaign at any time, or there may be some other reason why we can't carry out your requested observation(s). But the slots on 25-27 May are looking good and we will do our best!

REGISTER ONLINE BY 12:00 CET, 27 MARCH 2015

Questions?
Tweet with the hashtag #vmcschools or post a query in the blog

So, what can you propose?

What do you think you can do? Would you like to get a close-up image of a certain feature (Olympus Mons?), or observe the whole of Mars? Are you going to work with raw VMC data or use the processed images? Can you identify certain features or landforms and explain what is going on? What caused them? We aren't necessarily looking for the cleverest or most innovative observation proposals, but we will select eight (or so) good ones that we can fit together in to our observation window and that provide the best scientific, artistic or educational merit.

So, if you would like to take part in this extremely rare opportunity to briefly 'take charge' of a spacecraft around another world, make a plan and submit your proposals. Time is short and we know that there are many enthusiastic people – teachers, students, artists, young amateur astronomers and many more – out there with great ideas. Best of luck and we look forward to hearing from you!

Editor's note: Thanks to Andy Johnstone & Michel Denis for this post


Timeline/details

  • 6 March – Call for proposals open; all interested groups must register their interest
  • 19 March – #ESAHangout via Google+ – Mars Express mission team will provide a tutorial on the VMC and how its images are planned & acquired
  • 27 March – Deadline for registered groups to submit final proposal (12:00 CET)
  • 8 May – #ESAHangout via Google+ –  the Mars Express mission team will announce accepted observation targets
  • 25-27 May – VMC imaging!
  • 28 May (+/-) – VMC images downloaded and delivered to participant groups
  • End of current academic year or 31 July, which ever comes first – All participant groups must submit project report

We asked Michael Khan, working at ESA's Mission Analysis Office at ESOC, what he would select as targets for VMC. His comments and some very useful charts are below – Ed.

Potential observation targets

Here are a series of charts that indicate when/where MEX will be in relation to a selection of nine surface features (click for full size). These indicate the ground track, time, the range and the elevation for Mars Express (and hence the VMC) with respect to nine select features.

The ground track of the Mars Express spacecraft from 25 through 27 May. Where the red line is vertical, the spacecraft is passing its closest point to Mars, at around 250 km over the surface. Conversely, where the line is canted, the spacecraft is near the farthest point out on its elliptical orbit. This diagram shows the entire ground track - however, some of the ground track also passes over the Martian night, when the regions directly below are dark. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

The ground track of the Mars Express spacecraft from 25 through 27 May. Where the red line is vertical, the spacecraft is passing its closest point to Mars, at around 250 km over the surface. Conversely, where the line is canted, the spacecraft is near the farthest point out on its elliptical orbit. This diagram shows the entire ground track - however, some of the ground track also passes over the Martian night, when the regions directly below are dark. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

The local solar time is the current actual time at a given Mars location. In late May, it just so happens that the orbit is oriented such that most passes occur in the local morning hours, with very few passes (those that occur when the spacecraft is closest to Mars) in the late afternoon. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

The local solar time is the current actual time at a given Mars location. In late May, it just so happens that the orbit is oriented such that most passes occur in the local morning hours, with very few passes (those that occur when the spacecraft is closest to Mars) in the late afternoon. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

For the nine sample locations, the range (distance from the location to Mars Express) is shown for 25-27 May. Ideally, to obtain bright, high-resolution images, the elevation (see http://bit.ly/1MbUteQ) should be high and the range should be low, though this combination may be difficult to obtain. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

For the nine sample locations, the range (distance from the location to Mars Express) is shown for 25-27 May. Ideally, to obtain bright, high-resolution images, the elevation (see http://bit.ly/1MbUteQ) should be high and the range should be low, though this combination may be difficult to obtain. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

For nine sample locations on Mars, the elevation at which the spacecraft passes overhead, 25-27 May, is shown. Only those overflights where the Sun is up at each of the respective locations are taken into account. The higher the elevation, the better the observation conditions. For 90-deg elevation, Mars Express would be directly overhead. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

For nine sample locations on Mars, the elevation at which the spacecraft passes overhead, 25-27 May, is shown. Only those overflights where the Sun is up at each of the respective locations are taken into account. The higher the elevation, the better the observation conditions. For 90-deg elevation, Mars Express would be directly overhead. Credit: ESA/M. Khan

Two proposals from my side, based on my results:

  1. Eos Chasma on 2015/5/28, around 07:00 UTC at <2000 km range and up to 65 deg elevation. Arguably, pretty!
  2. Elysium Planitia and Elysium Mons on 2015/5/26 around 16:00 at <1200 km range and up to 45 deg elevation, and again on 2015/5/27 at 18:00 UTC at <2000 km range and up to 55 deg elevation. This area is the one where Mars Express saw the 'frozen sea' 10 years ago. It is also the landing region of NASA's Insight Spacecraft in September 2016.

There are also numerous opportunities to observe Meridiani Planum, the target location for ESA's 2016 Mars lander, the EDM Schiaparelli. VMC imaging opportunities occur on 2015/5/26, at 15:00 UTC, and 2015/5/28, at 18:00 UTC. This also applies to Oxia Planum, currently designated as reference landing site for ESA's 2018 Mars rover, ExoMars.

 

Acquisition of signal from Curiosity!

MEX Spacecraft Operations Engineer Simon Wood points to telemetry packets streaming down from Mars Express, indicating that signals were received earlier this afternoon from NASA's Curiosity on the surface. Test of the contingency relay link using Mars Express is complete!

Testing cooperation: ESA’s Mars Express transmits commands to NASA rover

This update sent in earlier today by ESA's Simon Wood, one of the engineers working on the Mars Express mission operations team at ESOC.

Today, ESA's Mars Express orbiter will send telecommands to NASA's Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.

This self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the "Mojave" site, where its drill collected the mission's second taste of Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the "Mojave" site, where its drill collected the mission's second taste of Mount Sharp. The scene combines dozens of images taken during January 2015 by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover's robotic arm. The pale "Pahrump Hills" outcrop surrounds the rover, and the upper portion of Mount Sharp is visible on the horizon. Darker ground at upper right and lower left holds ripples of wind-blown sand and dust. Full image and caption via NASA web. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The transmission is part of a routine quarterly test of the communications link between MEX and Curiosity – NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Aside from its prime science mission, Mars Express is able to provide contingency communications with MSL (or with any NASA rovers) in case of any problems with the normal data relay links.

This particular test consists of MEX hailing MSL – sending a specific signal requesting MSL to listen – then transmitting commands (provided by the MSL team at NASA/JPL) to the rover and then recording data transmitted back.

Background sequence of activities

  • MEX mission planning system schedules pointing of MEX's UHF (ultra high-frequency) antenna at MSL - end-December 2104
  • MSL team provides command file (i.e. the telecommands to be transmitted) to the MEX flight control team at ESOC - last week of February 2015
  • MEX flight control team uploads the commanding 'products' (files to be executed on board MEX) on 27 February; these were generated on 24 February
Mars Express orbiting the Red Planet - artist's impression Credit: ESA/Alex Lutkus

Mars Express orbiting the Red Planet - artist's impression Credit: ESA/Alex Lutkus

Operations timeline today

All times UTC

14:29 MEX will slew from Earth pointing to pointing its UHF antenna at MSL on the surface
14:41 MEX UHF antenna switches on – takes 15 mins to warm up
14:56 Overflight begins with MEX hailing MSL; overflight lasts 9 mins
15:05 MEX begins to slew back toward Earth pointing

Data received from MSL will be transmitted back to Earth by MEX at around 16:30 UTC via ESA's deep-space ESTRACK station in Malargüe, Argentina.

Later, NASA's deep-space network teams will extract the data from the MEX packet archive and pass this on the the MSL team for analysis.

Best regards from the MEX control team at ESOC!

– Simon

Beagle retrospective

The UK-led Beagle-2 Mars lander, which hitched a ride on ESA’s Mars Express mission and was lost on Mars since 2003, has been found in images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This close-up image has been sharpened to show possible details of the Beagle-2 lander on the surface of Mars.Credit: HiRISE/NASA/JPL/Parker/Leicester

The UK-led Beagle-2 Mars lander, which hitched a ride on ESA’s Mars Express mission and was lost on Mars since 2003, has been found in images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This close-up image has been sharpened to show possible details of the Beagle-2 lander on the surface of Mars.Credit: HiRISE/NASA/JPL/Parker/Leicester

The big news today is the discovery, courtesy of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), of the UK-led Beagle 2 lander on the surface of Mars.

Beagle 2 was meant to parachute to the surface of Mars in December 2003, but after separation, the small craft was never heard from again.

In 2014, remains of Beagle 2 were spotted by the HiRise camera on board MRO; the images and full details are here.

We thought you might enjoy seeing some archive pics of Beagle, so we gathered a selection of images showing the craft on Earth, during launch and its last-ever view seen from Mars Express from space (by the VMC camera), just after separation on 19 Dec 2003.

And, today's YouTube video via University of Leicester

The UK-led Beagle 2 was due to land on Mars on 25 December 2003. The spacecraft was ejected from Mars Express on 19 December 2003. Nothing had been heard from Beagle 2 and the mission was presumed lost. Until now.

It has now been announced that the Mars Lander has been identified partially deployed on the surface of Mars by images taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). These images show potential targets on the surface of Mars for the lander and key entry and descent components within the expected landing area.

Following analysis by members of the Beagle 2 team, which includes Leicester scientists, and NASA, the images show the Beagle 2 lander in what appears to be a partially deployed configuration with the main parachute and what is thought to be the rear cover close by.

Several interpretations of the image of the lander have been identified, consistent with the lander’s size and shape and changes in light reflections suggest that the object is metallic – again consistent with Beagle 2.

ESA Mars Express HRSC images now available under a Creative Commons licence

Editor's note: This is cross-posted from ESA's new Communication blog; the original was published earlier today by Marco Trovatello.

Following its arrival at the Red Planet in December 2003, imagery from ESA’s Mars Express mission has proved immensely popular, with the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board the spacecraft playing a major role.

Since January 2004, ESA and its partners at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Freie Universität Berlin (FUB) have been jointly publishing colour, stereo pictures of the martian surface from orbit, both still and moving. For example, a “Mars showcase” video, comprised of HRSC images, has been viewed almost 700,000 times since it was published on ESA’s Youtube channel in 2013.

But starting today, something is different with these regular image releases: in a joint undertaking by all three partners, Mars Express HRSC images will be made available under a Creative Commons (CC) licence. The licence we will apply is the same one we recently introduced for Rosetta NAVCAM images: CC BY-SA IGO 3.0, with credit to ESA/DLR/FU Berlin. In practical terms it will look like this:

Hellas Chaos

Hellas Chaos on Mars. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

And as luck would have it, we have a Mars Express HRSC movie release today which becomes the first to be covered by this Creative Commons licence:

Please read the full article on the ESA web portal here.

The licence will also be applied retroactively to all HRSC images released to date. As with Rosetta NAVCAM images, please bear with us as it will take a while to go back and change the credit lines for all of those images in our online galleries. But as a start, we have applied the new licencing to all HRSC images in our Mars Express Flickr album.

While at ESA we have only just begun releasing content under Creative Commons licences, our partners at DLR have been using CC as their standard licencing policy since 2012. Nevertheless, there is still something just a little bit special about the news today: as far as we know, it is the first time that three public organisations in Europe have teamed up in licencing a batch of joint content under Creative Commons.

For more in-depth info on ESA’s implementation of the CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO licence, please also read this blog post that I wrote with my colleague Mark McCaughrean.

NASA to discuss science findings of Mars comet flyby

Our colleagues at NASA have announced a media briefing at 18:00 today to discuss initial findings from the 19 October comet Siding Spring flyby. Original post below, including links to webcast.

NASA will host a media teleconference at noon EST on Friday, Nov. 7, to provide initial science observations of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring’s close flyby of Mars and the impact on the Martian atmosphere.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and a radar instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft provided the first close-up studies of the comet that originated from the distant outer reaches of our solar system.

Briefing participants include:

- Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington

- Nick Schneider, instrument lead for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, University of Colorado, Boulder

- Mehdi Benna, instrument scientist for MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt. Maryland

- Don Gurnett, lead investigator on the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding instrument on Mars Express, University of Iowa, Iowa City

- Alan Delamere, co-investigator for MRO’s HiRISE instrument, Delamere Support Services, Boulder, Colorado

For dial-in information, media representatives should e-mail their name, affiliation and telephone number to Dwayne Brown at dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov by 17:00 CET Friday.

Visuals will be posted at the start of the event at:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars/telecon

Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live at:

http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio

The event will also be streamed, with visuals used by the participants at:

http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2