10 years of imaging Mars

Today’s post – part of a series of reports marking the MEX 10th anniversary – was submitted by the Mars Express imaging team at Freie Universität Berlin – Ed.

Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that the brave MEX spacecraft would be still alive today?

For 10 years, the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) onboard Mars Express has provided astonishing images of the surface of Mars in colour and in 3D. From the beginning on, the breathtaking colour images from Mars delighted both the public and the scientists.

For scientists, the Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) derived from the stereo images provided a major step forward in the precise analysis of the martian surface, and the wide and long image swaths give excellent overviews of the terrain and its geological context.

HRSC image of Valles Marineris, the Solar System’s grandest canyon!
Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The public also made use of the HRSC data, not only from our Press Archive where the best images of the returned data are presented, but for example also using HRSC data in the Google Earth-Mars interface. Bit by bit, Mars turns into HRSC colour. Very much appreciated were also the HRSC-movies, created with the Digital Elevation Models and including, for example, a fly-through of the “Grand Canyon” of Mars, Valles Marineris.

Throughout the last decade the HRSC team has recorded 95.5% of the martian surface at a resolution of 60 m/pixel or better and 66.8% with a resolution of 12.5-20 m/pixel.

Due to the elliptical orbit of Mars Express, major challenges had to be mastered concerning the processing of the data and the photogrammetry. Furthermore, much patience was required due to dust-storms and clouds in the atmosphere, which reduced the data quality. Therefore, several regions were targeted multiple times.

Comparing the first images recorded by HRSC with those acquired today, there is no question that with improved image processing techniques the quality of image and DEM products have very much improved over the past 10 years .

The success story of Mars Express continues and we look forward to fully image the Red Planet with HRSC at highest resolution.

Happy Birthday Mars Express!!

Student of Mars

Today’s post – part of a series of reports marking the MEX 10th anniversary – was submitted by planetary geologist Damien Loizeau, who is on the hunt for water on Mars – Ed.

Damien Loizeau

I got involved in Mars Express when I started my PhD. Mars Express had been in orbit for a bit more than a year, the first results had just been published, and lots of new and exciting data were transmitted every week. Now I am part of two instrument teams for the mission: OMEGA, the imaging spectrometer, and HRSC, the high resolution stereo camera.

I work on the geology of the surface of Mars and these two instruments are perfect to study it. OMEGA helps us to determine the mineralogy of the surface, that is, the composition of the rocks, and we try to understand the age and the formation of the geological units with HRSC.

It was the first time that we had such a large dataset to understand the geology of Mars, and I was starting my scientific career inside this flow of new discoveries.

I could meet many of the leading European and American Mars scientists during the Mars Express instrument team meetings, where the most recent discoveries were presented and discussed. I also had the chance to work directly with the principal investigators of OMEGA and HRSC, in Orsay (France) and Berlin (Germany), respectively.

My first focus was on identifying minerals formed with liquid water. Liquid water is crucial for life on Earth, and it’s of utmost importance to evaluate if Mars was habitable, and if life had a chance to develop there. We mapped clays in different regions of Mars with OMEGA. On Earth, clay minerals mainly form over long periods by the interaction of rocks with liquid water. With the help of the orbiting high resolution cameras like HRSC, we observed that almost all the clay detections corresponded to rocks formed in the very early Martian history. This is a major sign of the drastic climate change that the Red Planet suffered more than 3 billion years ago.

I had the opportunity to make the map below for one of the Mars Express press conferences to illustrate our work, and I have been very happy to see it circulating on the web and in conferences for many years since.

Perspective view of clay-rich rocks (blue) on the old plateaus around the valley of Mawrth Vallis (left) and the crater Oyama (centre), made from a compilation of OMEGA, HRSC and MOLA (NASA Mars Global Surveyor) data. Credits : ESA/OMEGA/HRSC

Lately I had the opportunity to work for two years in one of ESA’s centres – ESTEC – in the Netherlands. I could follow more closely the missions with the scientists in charge of them, and the future projects like ExoMars. It was quite different from the academic world, with lots of new acronyms to remember!

Today, with the help of the instruments of the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, we are discovering the diversity of environments were liquid water has been present in the past on Mars, not only at the surface, but also at kilometre depths. But there is still a lot to discover both within the datasets from the spacecraft still in orbit around Mars, and from future missions. Exciting times lie ahead!

We are at Maaaaaaaars!

Today’s post – part of a series of reports marking the MEX 10th anniversary – was submitted by Mars Express Operations Manager Michel Denis, who was in the Main Control Room at ESOC during the night of 24/25 December 2003 when Europe arrived at Mars – Ed.

It was 25 December 2003, in the very early morning hours. As Spacecraft Operations Manager, I was invited from the Main Control Room to the large Conference Centre (where the main event at ESOC was happening – Ed.) to report on the ongoing Mars orbit injection manoeuvre. We know it has started, but we didn’t yet know whether it had completed successfully.

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24 Dec 2003 (pana, left) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24/25 Dec 2003 (panorama, left) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

Whatever my innermost emotions and questions, I talked to the officials and the journalists in the tone you need for these circumstances. I told them that the 39 commands that perform the ‘now or never’ orbit-injection manoeuvre have been verified innumerable times down to the last bit by the best experts; I repeated that the manoeuvre had been rehearsed exhaustively, using extreme simulations of the software and harsh tests of the spacecraft’s main engine by the manufacturer.

As a rational engineer I know that 100% certainty is impossible to achieve.

I pointed out that, if required, the small thrusters can automatically step in to help reduce our speed by almost 3000 km/h to help us get ‘caught’ by the Red Planet’s gravity.

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24 Dec 2003 (pana, right) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

Team in ESOC Main Control Room 24 Dec 2003 (panorama, right) Credit: ESA/M. Denis

As a rational engineer, I know that 100% certainty is impossible to achieve, and that much can happen in such a 40-minute-long manoeuvre…

Now I had to return back on console, and went back down to the Main Control Room, where my deputy, Alan Moorhouse, was in charge – mainly of waiting at that particular moment.

If you know ESOC, you certainly know the rotunda – a large spiral staircase leading to the Conference Centre (it’s in the H Building; the MCR is in the E Building – Ed.).

Michel Denis Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Michel Denis Credit: ESA/J. Mai

I start going down the steps, floating between two worlds equally tense; from the glossy world of the public event to the protected world of the Main Control Room – a busy cocoon where we had lived already ten days and nights, where the entry manoeuvre has been prepared based on the computations by Flight Dynamics, where all critical commands have finally been assembled and up loaded to our little spaceship 150 million kilometres away.

Flight Dynamics confirm capture, within 0.5% accuracy.

In the middle of the stairs, between the floor of talks and the floor of acts, the mobile phone wiggles in my pocket. A message from Alan: “Flight Dynamics confirm capture, within 0.5% accuracy.”

In everyone’s private or professional life there are turning points which, however planned and expected, represent ‘a giant leap’, to paraphrase a glorious quote. A point with a Before and an After; ‘after’,  our existence is changed, irreversibly.

In these instants, the present is more intense; more present than ever. Overwhelming.

Rotunda staircase at ESOC. Yelling is normally not permitted. Credit: ESA/J. Mai

Rotunda staircase at ESOC. Yelling is normally not permitted. Credit: ESA/J. Mai

So overwhelming, that when you remember this moment years or decades later, you revive it as it were the first time again.

I am overwhelmed, alone in the huge rotunda, perfectly empty, everyone at ESOC is either sitting in the Conference Centre or standing in the control rooms, waiting for the news. Alone, for a few seconds, in this resonant space that makes sounds impressive, where I often sang Christmas carols with the ESOC Choir. Today is Christmas day; whether child or adult, whether you believe or not, in our lives a special date, very emotional.

“We are at Maaaaaaaars!” I could not refrain from yelling, with my loudest voice, to expel from my chest all the emotions of the night and the years of preparation and the last-minute doubts and angst and the incredible joy that seizes me now, just like Mars has seized Mars Express, just like Europe has seized Mars. We are at Mars: now it is true, and nothing can make this not to have happened.

Merry Christmas Europe!  Welcome to Mars!

Mars Express profiled in Holland’s Space Society magazine

The Mars Express 10-year anniversary is being celebrated in the magazine Ruimtevaart of the Netherlands Space Society.

NL Ruimtevaart Magazine Credit: Netherlands Space Society

NL Ruimtevaart Magazine Credit: Netherlands Space Society

The 2013/2 edition contains an overview of the most stunning HRSC pictures. Later this year, a more in-depth article about the full mission is planned based on inputs from the MEX project scientist and mission manager.

Thanks, Mars Express operations engineer Kees van der Pols at ESOC for this!


MEX 10-year celebration: We’d like to invite a few of our friends

On 3 June 2013, ESA will host a small in-house event to mark ten years of success at the Red Planet. The event will take place at ESOC, home of the Mars Express mission operations team.

Mars Express over water-ice crater Credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum

Mars Express over water-ice crater Credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum

As a way to say ‘thank you’ for following our mission, we’re delighted to invite a small number of Twitter followers to ESA/ESOC on Monday, 3 June. The programme starts at 15:00 CEST and will include expert presentations from the MEX science and operations teams, followed by a small reception:

14:30 – Doors open/arrival
15:00 – Presentations, including

** Olivier Witasse: Host welcome/introduction
** Michael McKay: Mars Express in the international picture
** Alain Clochet: The industrial perspective
** Michel Denis: Mars Express 10 years of operations
Short break
** Jeff Plaut: The US role in Mars Express
** Ernst Hauber: HRSC highlights
** Agustin Chicarro: The Mars Express legacy
Open contributions

17:15 – End of formal programme
17:30 – Reception
~19:00 – Event ends

As much as we’d like to invite all 120k followers of our various Twitter channels, we can’t! 🙁 But we do have a small number of seats available and we’d like to invite you apply for an invitation via the form below. Please apply by 12:00 CEST on 29 May.

NOTE: 29.05: Applications are now closed. Thx to all who submitted!

We’ll contact the selected invitees by email around 16:00 CEST on 29 May, and will look forward to seeing you on the 3rd.

Questions/queries? Contact us via @esaoperations or @esa_de