Mars and Moon seen together

Today’s post was contributed by Michael Khan, who blogs on all things spacey over at He’s contributed updates to several ESA blogs in the past.

This summer is bringing some interesting Mars observation opportunities.

Nothing as mundane as a mere ‘encounter’ between our Moon and Mars was included in those suggestions, but such encounters do occur, and they do constitute great photo ops for astrophotographers. Case in point: 7 June, when only a few degrees separated the Red Planet and Earth’s companion. (Keep in mind that we are talking about apparent encounters here: the Moon and Mars appear to be in the same location of the sky, but of course, at all times, Mars will be at least 53 millions and sometimes 400 million kilometres distant). 

This particular encounter was not all that close – about two and a half degrees, or five times the apparent size the Moon. But it definitely looked close, and it was a pretty sight too. The tiny reddish orb contrasted very nicely with the Moon’s grey bulk. 

For every type of observation, there is an ideal telescope. If a large field of view is required, the focal distance must be short. Such a telescope can be surprisingly compact, as this 2-inch, 330-mm refractor demonstrates.

For every type of observation, there is an ideal telescope. If a large field of view is required, the focal distance must be short. Such a telescope can be surprisingly compact, as this 2-inch, 330-mm refractor demonstrates.

You need a telescope with a short focal length and therefore a wide field of view to see both objects. Anything less than 400 mm works. Some astronomers regard such telescopes as mere toys, of use perhaps as a finder scope. But there are times where they are handy. This was one such instance. You can attach your camera to the telescope via an adapter, thus using the telescope like a telephoto lens. Alternatively, if you have a good telephoto lens, you might just as well use that. 

The trick is to find an exposure time that will do both bodies justice, once you have your gear in focus and pointing in the right direction. You can take off the camera and enjoy the scene with an eyepiece. No problem there – the human eye can process enormous differences in contrast. But digital cameras can’t. Try a short exposure time and the Moon will come out all right but Mars will be so faint that you can barely see it; certainly you won’t be able to see its colour. Then try a long exposure time (no too long or your image will be blurred) and Mars will come out nice and red but the Moon will appear a white blob, drowning out its surroundings.

In the end, you may find that getting a satisfactory picture (one that resembles what you just saw through the eyepiece), requires some cheating. Take two images – the first with a short exposure time, so the Moon looks right and the second with a longer exposure time, for Mars. Then you load both into an image processing tool on your computer (nowadays, very powerful software is available as freeware, choose the one you prefer), cut the area around Mars out of image 2 and paste it at the appropriate location in image 1. Make sure the background colours are right so one can’t see where the pasting took place. 

That’s all there is to it. It’s not really cheating as long as you took both images yourself and as long as you don’t hide the fact that this is a composite image. The people who make those pictures for the glossy magazines cheat a lot more than that. Anyway. What you should easily get is something like what I got, or better:

Moon and Mars seen over Darmstadt on 7 June 2014 at 22:18 CEST (composite). Telescope: 50/330 ED-Doublet TSED503 || Camera: Canon EOS 600D, ISO 800 || Moon aperture: 1/640 s || Mars aperture: 1/125s - Credit: Michael Khan

Moon and Mars seen over Darmstadt on 7 June 2014 at 22:18 CEST (composite). Telescope: 50/330 ED-Doublet TSED503 || Camera: Canon EOS 600D, ISO 800 || Moon exposure: 1/640 s || Mars exposure: 1/125s – Credit: Michael Khan

The telescope I used is a small refractor (it uses lenses, not mirrors) with a focal length of 330 mm and an aperture of 50 mm. The camera was a standard retail Canon 600D. The camera is attached directly to the telescope with a special adapter called a ‘T2-ring’ and then the telescope is mounted onto a sturdy tripod. With an ISO setting of 800, the Moon image was exposed at 1/640 s, the Mars image at 1/125 s. That’s very much like standard photography. No extremely long exposure times required. 

Anyone who can take a picture with a DSLR can do this. So, what are you waiting for? Go out at night. Take pictures. Just do it!

Mars Google+ Hangout

In celebration of World Space Week, experts from ESA’s Mars Express mission will join the US Planetary Society in a Google Hangout focusing on the Red Planet on Friday. The event will feature ESA’s Olivier Witasse, Project Scientist for Mars Express, and Michel Denis, Spacecraft Operations Manager, in a live Google+ Hangout, or video chat, together with Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor for the Planetary Society.

The Hangout will take place on Friday, 4 October, starting at 14:00 GMT (16:00 CEST) and is expected to run for about 1 hour.

Mars Express — Celebrating 10 Years

by Olivier Witasse, Daniel Scuka, and Emily Baldwin

Mars Express celebrates a decade of orbital observations of the Red Planet

Mars Express 10 year highlightsOn June 2, 2003, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express orbiter was launched toward the red planet, entering into orbit just six months later. Though the accompanying Beagle 2 lander failed to establish radio contact from Mars’s surface, the orbiter is still swinging around Mars ten years on. Mars Express orbits roughly every 8 hours to collect data on Mars, its moons, and even the Sun.

Via Sky & Telescope

Mars Full Orbit Video 2.0: Kepler rocks the Red Planet

Just in time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Mars Express: a new and enhanced Full Orbit Video delivered by the VMC camera – the Mars Webcam!

The version below is a special ‘MEX birthday preview’ – we’ll post a somewhat extended version late next week (along with a more detailed explanation on how this video was produced), to coincide with the next expected VMC image set arriving from Mars.

What’s the ‘Full Orbit video’, you ask? Access the original FO video produced in 2010 for the full description.

Thanks to the Mars Express Science & Operations teams for generating a fabulous, unique-in-our-Solar-System view of the Red Planet.

Happy Birthday, Mars Express!

Mars Express: 10 years mission highlights graphic

A super-nice graphic showing operations and science highlights from ESA’s Mars Express mission, which celebrated 10 years since launch on 2 June 2013.

The central image of Mars is composed of images taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), which has mapped around 95% of the planet’s surface. The images of Phobos and Deimos were also taken by the HRSC.

Access the original hi-res TIFF file in the ESA website

Mars Express mission highlights. Images of Mars, Phobos & Deimos: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Mars Express mission highlights. Images of Mars, Phobos & Deimos: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)


MEX lift off 10 years ago now!

Mars Express was launched on 2 June 2003 at 17:45 UT, 19:45 CEST, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, via a Soyuz/Fregat rocket.

Thank you, @NASAhistory, for a thoughtful – and timely – birthday tweet!


Ten years of the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS)

Today’s post – part of a series of reports marking the MEX 10th anniversary – was submitted by Marco Giuranna, the Principle Investigator for the PFS instrument. Marco works at the IAPS Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali (INAF), Rome – Ed.

It’s been ten years since Mars Express was launched on 2 June 2003. Ten years full of exciting moments, challenges, and beautiful memories. I could never forget that moment.

It was 10 January 2004. We were all insidem a small room at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), Darmstadt, Germany, in the very early morning hours. It was very cold outside, something like -10°C, or even colder. All the PIs for the various instruments were in that room, together with a couple members of each science team. I was among them, as a member of the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) team. We were all waiting for the very first observation of Mars!

At that time, Vittorio Formisano was the PI for PFS. I was only a young student. I was responsible for the calibration of PFS; in other words, I had to transform the raw data sent by the instrument into quantitative measurements of Mars.

The room was silent, with only some whispering here and there. “Will the instrument switch on? Will it work properly?” I bet everyone was wondering the same questions.

All of a sudden: sounds of keyboards everywhere, people running around talking loudly… It took me a few seconds to realize what was going on: the first data were arriving!

We checked our data… everything was OK and PFS was working well. Everyone was so happy!

Everyone, except me.

Well, it’s not that I wasn’t happy. Of course I was, but an additional challenge was awaiting me: calibration.

Will the algorithms developed in the laboratory work also for Mars? I couldn’t answer that question – I was so nervous. But the moment has come. I got the data and loaded them into the software. All I had to do was to press the ‘run’ button… and hope for the best. Click.

“Mars is warmer than the Earth!” I shouted.

Single PFS measurement of Mars acquired during the very first set of observations around the equator, January 2004

Single PFS measurement of Mars acquired during the very first set of observations around the equator, January 2004. The signal around 1300 cm-1 gives a first estimation of the surface temperature: 285K.


Yes! The calibration was successful!

The first PFS observations of the Red Planet passed over the equator, and allowed a first estimation of the temperature of the surface there: around 285 K (~12 °C), much warmer than in Darmstadt!

I was so happy, I took a screenshot of the first calibrated measurements of PFS and sent it by email to all the Co-investigators around the world. I will never forget the expression of Vittorio. After all those years of hard work, his instrument was finally observing Mars!

Since then, PFS has collected almost two million measurements of Mars, allowing analyses of its atmospheric composition, circulation and climatology: ten years of top-quality science and exciting results. Who could imagine that a little feature observed in the PFS measurements would have led to one of the ten most important discoveries of the last years, and of Mars Express: methane on Mars!

First detection of Methane with PFS. Credit: ESA/IANF/IAPS

First detection of methane (CH4) with PFS (adapted from Formisano et al., 2004. Science 306, p1758).

PFS is still operating and will continue to monitor the Martian atmosphere for new, exciting results.

Happy Birthday, Mars Express!

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!