VMC grows up

The news is out: our little VMC webcam on board Mars Express has achieved adulthood, of sorts! In a web article on 25 May, we announced that the VMC camera is being adopted as a professional science instrument.

Mars seen in May 2016 in three different views. Full details via http://www.esa.int/marstriptych2016 Credit: D. O'Donnell - ESA/Mars Express/VMC CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO - ESA/NASA/Hubble

Mars seen in May 2016 in three different views. Full details via http://www.esa.int/marstriptych2016 Credit: D. O’Donnell – ESA/Mars Express/VMC CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO – ESA/NASA/Hubble

The article reads, in part:

This spring, ESA began working with the Planetary Sciences Group of the University of the Basque Country, Spain, for an initial two years to develop software and conduct studies of images, effectively promoting the humble camera to the level of professional science instrument.

“The analysis will help us understand the global martian context of data acquired from other instruments, provide data on clouds, dust and atmospheric structures and enable surface features to be accurately characterised, for example, by tracking variations in the Mars polar ice cap,” says Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, heading the group.

ESA’s Mars Express Project Scientist Dmitri Titov is delighted that the camera is opening up a new range of investigations at Mars: “Cloud tracking and dust storm monitoring, for example, are significant topics in the planetary community, and it will allow us to extend Mars Express science ‘into the atmosphere’, filling a gap in the spacecraft’s science portfolio.

The good news is that the transition to a science instrument won’t interfere with the ongoing delivery of VMC images for immediate public viewing and for continued use in outreach, education and citizen science. You remain more than welcome (highly encouraged, in fact!) to access the image sets and use them for your own analysis, processing and sharing (details on CC licensing here).

Working on VMC outreach, education and PR has been one of the most interesting and satisfying projects I’ve been involved with here at ESOC in recent years. I have thoroughly enjoyed being in touch with, and working with, a lot of enthusiastic folks – some within ESA, many external – all of whom have been motivated by the love of science, interest in Mars, support for education and working with an active community.

While I thoroughly enjoyed seeing (and sharing) the many VMC submissions that people on several continents sent it over the years, the most enjoyable activity for me was definitely the 2015 VMC Imaging Campaign aimed at schools, astronomy clubs, science centres and other youth groups.

The level of participation was fabulous (25 groups from the US and Europe) and the resulting work was really well done. It was a genuine pleasure to work with the MEX flight control team here to host a series of Google Hangouts, issue the challenge, receive the imaging requests and then actually conduct the dedicated observations. This might have been the first-ever allocation of multiple orbits of an interplanetary craft to schools and young folks! And it was also a pleasure to see that some groups chose to submit artistic work based on the resulting images, in addition to those who sent in more traditional science projects.

It was also a pleasure working with pro-, semi-pro- and amateur (but v. enthusiastic) planetary science nuts located all over the place!

One of the most active supporters of VMC since the beginning has been Emily Lakdawalla – herself a planetary scientist – who blogs over at the Planetary Society. Emily has done an excellent job over many years highlighting numerous ESA missions, and she was a keen ‘early adopter’ when the VMC images first became available in 2007/08. She promoted and shared VMC images, and designed and hosted online tutorials to help those interested in working with the images learn some of the techniques, and she inspired many others to get involved.

I asked Emily for a few comments, and she sent in this:

The VMC demonstrates the power of a simple camera for exciting the public about the adventure of space exploration. Its images are not large but they are the only ones arriving from any Mars spacecraft that show us Mars as a round planet in all its changing phases and seasons – a view out the porthole of an interplanetary ship. I’d like to see simple, small, wide-angle cameras on all spacecraft to provide context to tell the story of robotic space exploration.

It’s appropriate, however, to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to VMC since its recommissioning in 2007. People have contributed time, software, knowledge, support to outreach activities, organisational efforts and enthusiasm – and so much more – helping make the VMC outreach effort a real success!

To everyone here, in alphabetical order, a huge thanks!

  • Stuart Atkinson
  • Johannes Bauer
  • Maria Bennett
  • Jean-Pierre Bibring
  • Michel Breitfellner
  • Marcello Cappelletti
  • Alejandro Cardesin
  • Michel Denis
  • Bill Dunford
  • Doug Ellison
  • Paolo Ferri
  • James Godfrey
  • Brigitte Gondet
  • Hannes Griebel
  • Andy Johnstone
  • Michael Khan
  • Rene Kloos
  • Emily Lakdawalla
  • Daniel Lakey
  • Jocelyne Landeau-Constantin
  • Luke Lucas
  • Stefan Luders
  • Mike Malaska
  • Thomas Ormston
  • Ted Stryk 
  • Gordan Ugarkovic
  • Manfred Warhaut
  • Simon Wood

If I inadvertently left someone’s name off the thanks list, DO let me know!!!!

Last but by no means least, I’d like to thank everyone who has ever downloaded, tinkered with, mashed up, colour-processed, artistically rendered, analysed, processed, shared or in any other way had total fun messing with VMC images. You guys are an inspiring community and it has been your enthusiasm that has made the VMC project a success.

If you’re looking for a nice, historical overview of VMC activities with many updates from the folks who did a lot of the work, there’s no better place than the VMC thread over at UnmannedSpaceFlight.

PS: As Emily pointed out in a separate email, a couple of our VMC community members have since gone on to great things: Both Mike Malaska and Bill Dunford have been absorbed by NASA/JPL!

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.

Spacecraft in great shape – our mission continues

Update from Spacecraft Operations Manager Michel Denis at ESOC:

Comet Siding Spring has flown by Mars .

Thanks to the DSN radio-science receiver at Madrid (then Goldstone) we could follow the Mars Express S-Band beacon practically all the time, including closest approach and comet plane crossing. Despite the very low level of concern, this was quite good to have.

After flyby, acquisition of signal occurred as planned at 22:25CEST, which implicitly confirmed that the spacecraft is operating normally. First systematic checks of spacecraft telemetry were performed for all sub-systems and showed fully nominal behaviour. There are no unexpected events or out-of-limits.

The downlink of the science data has started. The observation programme focused on the atmosphere/ionosphere continues for another two days. The HRSC pictures from the encounter are due for downlnk on Thursday.

After a year of intense preparation for technical readiness, our warm thanks to all teams who have supported the flight control team at ESOC, ESAC, ESTEC, NASA/DSN and beyond. We still have a mission.

Kind regards,

– MD


The nice folks over at The Planetary Society are commissioning a set of three fantastic posters celebrating robotic spacecraft. And get this: The three missions to be featured will be chosen by public vote! Naturally, the team here on the Mars Express blog believe passionately that Europe’s first mission to another planet should be one of the selectees, but we need help to do it. Obviously, here’s where you come in… 🙂

Why vote for us?

Mars Express - 10 year mission highlights Credit: ESA

Mars Express – 10 year mission highlights Credit: ESA


In the 10 years we’ve spent orbiting Mars, there have been many mission highlights and achievements. These include:

  • Detecting water ice at the Martian Poles
  • Performing the closest ever flyby of Phobos (58km)
  • Supported the landers and rovers Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and MSL
  • Imaged the Martian surface in stereo to produce results like this fantastic fly through of the Valles Marineris
  • VMC – the Mars Webcam – supporting public outreach and providing great images of the entire planet with new updates going online as soon as they arrive on ground

… plus many more fabulous highlights (see our poster here)!

The Planetary Society contest website is located: http://www.planetary.org/get-involved/contests/poster/

Remember, every vote counts! #VoteMEX

Tracking MSL: Media event at ESOC gallery

There’s a nice photo gallery now in Flickr snapped during the media event at ESOC on Monday morning, showing some of the intense activity around the time of Curiosity’s landing. There are also some nice photos of the Mars Express flight control team, including Spacecraft Operations Manager Michel Denis and MEX engineers Thomas Ormston and James Godfrey.

MEX team at work

Mars Express engineer Thomas Ormston on console in ESOC’s Main Control Room. Credit: ESA/D. Danesy

Nice note from NASAs’ MSL Mission Interface Manager

Curiosity rover descending under parachute to martian surface, as seen by NASA Odyssey Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

PASADENA, Calif. – An image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter captured the Curiosity rover still connected to its almost 16-meter-wide parachute as it descended toward Gale Crater.

This note came in last night from Susan Kurtik, NASA’s MSL Mission Interface Manager at JPL and the person with whom ESA’s ESTRACK team at ESOC worked to plan and conduct the tracking of MSL’s arrival using New Norcia station (see our earlier post – ESA, NASA, Parkes: Big ears on Earth will listen to MSL descend – Ed.)

Susan wrote:


We want to extend our Congratulations for the incredible success of the ESA MEX and ESTRACK support of the MSL EDL!  It was flawless and exceeded everyone’s expectations – great job!

Following the landing, the MSL mission manager came over to personally thank us and asked that we extend his most sincere and deep appreciation for the outstanding support of the DSN and ESA teams.  It is always an honor to be collaborating with our international partners and to be working together with such a dedicated and highly skilled team.  We have changed the world today, together.  And we have demonstrated once again the tremendous benefits of international collaboration!

Sending ENORMOUS THANKS to our ESA partners!

Best regards,

Susan C. Kurtik
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Deep Space Network
MSL Mission Interface Manager