Update 29 May – and exploring Mars on Earth

Today’s update from the MEX team at ESOC on progress of the VMC Schools Campaign.

Initial image processing complete; all files exported as PNGs, together with the original RAW-format files (i.e. as recorded by VMC on board MEX). Total PNG file size is 702MB. Now the sorting can begin!

And while you’re waiting….

On Friday, 22 May (during last week’s ESAHangout for the VMC Schools Campaign), students at the Curiosity Lab (Madrid) were deeply occupied in… exploring Mars! And we’ve got the the video to prove it (see below).

Curiosity Lab is one of the youth groups taking part in the VMC Schools Campaign, and have specifically requested images showing Aeolis Mons. ¡Muchas gracias! to the entire team for sharing this lively video – and best wishes for your VMC project – we can’t wait to see it!

PS: The Curiosity lab group have published an update on their VMC Schools Campaign participation in their blog (in Spanish).



Controlling Mars Express – How cool is that?

This afternoon, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, conducting her #futura42 science mission on board the International Space Station, took a moment to recognise the dozens of students in 25 groups from 12 countries who are taking part in the VMC Schools Campaign. Thank you, astro Sam! Your interest in #STEM and in exploring space is inspiring to everyone – especially young, future planetary scientists/astronauts!

A bit later, @esaoperations replied:

Update 28 May

Today’s update from the MEX team at ESOC on progress of the VMC Schools Campaign, via Spacecraft Operations Engineer Simon Wood.

All VMC observations are complete and ran as planned; all images are now on ground. Initial processing has begun!

With approximately 2000 of them, Simon mentions that it is going to take a bit of time to prepare, process and sort the images for distribution to the VMC Schools participants. We’ll keep you updated.

Update 27 May

Today’s update from the MEX team at ESOC on progress of the VMC Schools Campaign, via Spacecraft Operations Engineer Simon Wood. More VMC images are expected to arrive today and tomorrow.

DSA 3 Malargüe

This image, taken in 2012, shows DSA 3 Malargüe station, one the world’s most sophisticated tracking stations used for deep space communications, as it neared inauguration in Malargüe, Argentina. Credit: ESA – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

We had small glitch in the connection to the Malargüe DSA 3 ground station (DSA 3) during yesterday’s data downlink. This happens from time to time, however it is not a problem for us, as Estrack ground stations store all the data received at the station for at least 8 days.

This meant that we were able to recall the missing few minutes of yesterday’s communication pass from the ground station and feed it into the mission control system here at ESOC this morning, so no data were lost.

The last image received in yesterday’s downlink was a nice image of Phillips crater!

First VMC School Campaign images are down!

This is a collage of Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) images acquired on 25 May and downloaded to Earth early on 26 May 2015. They are among the first in a series of over 2000 images that are being acquired by Mars Express in support of the VMC Schools Campaign!

Collage of Mars Express VMC images acquired 25 May 2015 Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Collage of Mars Express VMC images acquired 25 May 2015 Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

We wanted to share a low-resolution mash-up with you, just so you knew ‘your’ images are being delivered! The complete image sets, at full VMC 640X480 resolution will be delivered to campaign participants starting as early as Friday this week.

Update 26 May

A very brief update from MEX Spacecraft Operations Engineer Simon Wood at ESOC, who, together with the Mars Express team, are now just checking telemetry – on-board status information – and some **initial** VMC data that were downloaded last night. Simon writes:

First images downloaded last night; everything going OK so far. Good shots of Mars South Pole – Northern hemisphere looks quite cloudy/dusty.

More details later.


VMC Schools Campaign: Uploading commands

Update from MEX Spacecraft operations Engineer Simon Wood at ESOC

The commands to run next week’s observations are now all confirmed on board Mars Express!

To give an idea of what these commands are and what they look like, here is a screen shot from the mission control system showing the commands on board for the first observation orbit on Monday, 25 May.

Uploading command stack to Mars Express

Uploading command stack to Mars Express

In essence, they are broken down into three groups: turning the spacecraft away from Earth (we call this a ‘slew’), the observation itself and then the slew back to pointing at Earth.

For the first group, the slew away, we first have a command to set what we call the ‘out of Earth timeout’; this starts a timer by the end of which the spacecraft must be back to Earth pointing. If it is not Earth pointing when the timer expires, then the spacecraft will put itself in safe mode.

This is a precaution that is taken for every pointing we do; in the event of a problem, the spacecraft won’t get stuck pointing the wrong way.

There are then the commands to update the mode in which the attitude and orbit control system (AOCS) is in and to tell the craft to start to slew. Finally, there are commands to update the position of the solar arrays to ensure that when the spacecraft has turned to its new attitude, that sufficient power is being generated.

Once in position, we can then start the observation.

Here we have the command to start the on-board control procedure (OBCP), which is a small computer program that runs on board the spacecraft and that controls the VMC camera. This program switches on and initialises the camera (this takes around two minutes) and then it enters into the programmed observations.

For the VMC Schools Campaign, this is means taking approximately 1 image per minute, cycling through 3 exposure settings. As this is a long-duration observation, there are also a group of commands that will keep updating the AOCS such that it keeps turning the spacecraft to keep Mars in the view of VMC.

The final group is the end of observation activities. Here we start another OBCP, which switches VMC off. Then the solar arrays are commanded to rotate again to optimise the power output and AOCS is then commanded to turn the spacecraft so the antenna is pointing at Earth.

After that, the transmitter will then switch on and the on-board computer will begin sending the VMC images back to Earth.

– Simon Wood

Working with VMC images – some brilliant examples and howtos

Several of the VMC Schools Campaign participants have asked, “What can we do with the images?” There’s no better way to answer this that to provide some links to past projects that have been done by schools, astronomy clubs and even individuals – all of which are very good and some of which are brilliant!

A year of VMC images

Locating Mars geographical features

VMC Project at Humboldt Gymnasium, Vatterstetten, Germany

Emily Lakdawalla – How to work with VMC images

Amateur processing/contributions

ESAHangout: Mars Express lined up for VMC Schools Campaign


22 May – Start 11:00 EDT / 15:00 GMT / 17:00 CEST http://goo.gl/Yw8P5p

Prior to flying the campaign orbits on 25/26 May, this will be the final interactive Q&A session with the Mars Express flight control team for participants in the VMC Schools Campaign. Priority for questions will go to school/club participants. Questions can be posted in the ESA G+ channel or via Twitter using the #VMCSchools hashtag.

Orbit visualisations – 25/26 May 2015

These three animations give you an accurate visualisation of the three orbits that will be dedicated to the VMC Schools campaign next week. We’ll Ask the MEX team to explain these in detail during Friday’s ESAHangout. They are posted below in the order in which they’ll be flown.

What you see in them is VMC’s view of Mars during the observations.

Video 1 – DOY 145 (25 May) Orbits 14456,14457 14458 Starting at 05:25 to 21:00

Video 2 DOY 146 (26 May) Orbit 14459 Stating 03:00 – 08:00.

Video 3 Doy 146 (26 May) Orbit 14461 -14462 Starting 21:30 – 06:45