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.

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

 

Mars Express ready for comet Siding Spring

On 14 October at 16:18 CEST, Comet Siding Spring will be 25,001,331 km from the centre of Mars, 24,997,942 km from the surface of Mars (mean) and 24,997,399 km from Mars Express, closing at a speed of -55.88 km/second.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring seen on 6 September 2014 from Argentina. Image credit: César Nicolás Fornari https://www.facebook.com/cesar.fornari

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring seen on 6 September 2014 from Argentina. Image credit: César Nicolás Fornari https://www.facebook.com/cesar.fornari

For the Comet Siding Spring encounter this weekend, the Mars Express mission team have decided to not execute the initial contingency plan of pointing the high gain antenna toward the expected direction of comet particles and switching off all non-essential systems. Instead, we will be taking advantage of this remarkable opportunity to perform science observations of the comet – yet with a few precautions.

Siding Spring will pass by Mars at 139 500 km – a little more than
1/3 the distance between Earth and our Moon.

The final decision was made at the beginning of October. As we had two plans ready – one dubbed ‘nominal science’ and one ‘contingency’ – we were able to make this decision close to the encounter date and take advantage of the latest estimates of comet activity.

In creating the weekly observation plan for the spacecraft, several teams and many different factors are involved. Not only do we have to decide on where to point the spacecraft but we also have to take into account the amount of data generated, ground station availability, power requirements, thermal conditions, pointing restrictions and several others. Each of these is a lot of work in itself and trying to have two plans that were as similar as possible kept our mission planning team quite busy. This is why we have to plan everything far in advance.

So, the plan we will use is much like our standard weekly operations, but with a few additional precautions:

  • NASA’s DSN deep space tracking network are providing excellent support and will be allocating all of their antennas at both their Madrid and Goldstone sites purely to support the ESA, NASA and ISRO Mars missions. As well as using two of their 34m antennas to perform dumps of science data, we will be using the two giant 70m antennas to track a beacon signal that will be transmitted from one of the Mars Express low gain antennas (this was originally part of our contingency plan, but will be used in this now-routine science plan to give us an indication that all is well on the spacecraft).
  • We will also perform additional checks to the spacecraft systems. Once we get our first data after the comet encounter, engineers will go through all subsystems to be sure that everything is nominal and compare system status values to default values recorded earlier.
  • The Data Management Systems Engineers will dump all the data from our computer systems on Monday to be sure that nothing has become corrupted and our Power/Thermal Engineers will perform a test the week after flyby to measure any change in the performance of our solar arrays.

We are not expecting to find any problems but rather perform these tests so as to be sure.

MEX science during Siding Spring

Presentation by H. Svedhem, ESA’s mission scientist for MEX, detailing the plans for science during Siding Spring flyby this week and next.

This presentation was given at the Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) Science Workshop, NASA JPL, 19 September 2014.

The recording of the workshop features Hakan here:

From 1:17:00 to end

and

Until 18:29

Welcome, Maven!

On behalf of ESA’s entire Mars Express team, Welcome Maven! We thought you might enjoy a whole-disk image of your new planetary home.

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.

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

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

For regular image updates from the VMC camera, access ESA’s VMC blog.

Cosmic bully spotted by ESA and NASA

There are some great new Hubble images of our ‘friend’, Comet Siding Spring, due to pass by Mars at less than 136 000 km on 19 October – less than half the distance between Earth and our moon.

Comet Siding Spring imaged by ESA/NASA Hubble. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Comet Siding Spring imaged by ESA/NASA Hubble. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

The passage of the comet may affect spacecraft in orbit around Mars, including ESA’s Mars Express.

The image on the left above, captured 11 March by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows comet C/2013 A1, also called Siding Spring, at a distance of 568 million km from Earth. Hubble can’t see Siding Spring’s icy nucleus because of its diminutive size. The nucleus is surrounded by a glowing dust cloud, or COMA, that measures roughly 19 000 km across.

The right image shows the comet after image processing techniques were applied to remove the hazy glow of the coma revealing what appear to be two jets of dust coming off the location of the nucleus in opposite directions. This observation should allow astronomers to measure the direction of the nucleus’s pole, and axis of rotation.

Hubble also observed Siding Spring on 21 January as Earth was crossing its orbital plane, which is the path the comet takes as it orbits the Sun. This positioning of the two bodies allowed astronomers to determine the speed of the dust coming off the nucleus.

“This is critical information that we need to determine whether, and to what degree, dust grains in the coma of the comet will impact Mars and spacecraft in the vicinity of Mars,” said Jian-Yang Li of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

Compass and Scale Image for Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring (3 Epochs)

Compass and Scale Image for Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring (3 Epochs)
Source: Hubblesite.org

The image above shows a series of HST pictures of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as observed on 29 October 2013, 21 January 2014 and 11 March 2014. The distances from Earth were, respectively, 605 million km, 552 million km, and 568 million km. The solid icy nucleus is too small to be resolved by Hubble, but it lies at the center of a dusty coma that is roughly 19 000 km across in these images.

When the glow of the coma is subtracted through image processing, which incorporates a smooth model of the coma’s light distribution, Hubble resolves what appear to be two jets of dust coming off the nucleus in opposite directions. The jets have persisted through the three Hubble visits, with their directions in the sky nearly unchanged. These visible-light images were taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3.

Discovered in January 2013 by Robert H. McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory, Australia, the comet is falling toward the Sun along a roughly 1-million-year orbit and is now within the radius of Jupiter’s orbit. The comet will make its closest approach to our Sun on 25 October at a distance of 209 million km – well outside of Earth’s orbit. The comet is not expected to become bright enough to be seen by the naked eye.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

Mars Express team readies for Siding Spring

One of the most interesting events in planetary exploration in 2014 is potentially also one of the most threatening for spacecraft orbiting Mars. This post was contributed by the MEX operations team here at ESOC and marks the start of our coverage of their efforts to safeguard the mission during the close flyby of Comet Siding Spring in October – while doing some unique science.

On Sunday, 19 October 2014, at around 18:30 UTC (20:30 CET), comet C/2013 A1 – known widely as ‘Siding Spring’ after the Australian observatory where it was discovered in January 2013 – will make a close fly-by of Mars.

This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. Credit: NASA

This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. Credit: NASA

It will be the second comet to visit the Red Planet in 12 months, following Comet ISON in October 2013. However, where ISON passed some 10 000 000 km from the planet, current estimates put Siding Spring’s miss distance at just 136 000* km from the surface.

To give some perspective, Siding Spring will approach Mars by about 1/3 the average distance from Earth to the Moon (about 385,000 km).

At the scale of our Solar System, this is a very, very close shave…

Siding Spring seen from ESA's Optical Ground Station, Tenerife, Spain, 31 January 2014, 19:50 UTC Credit: ESA

Siding Spring seen from ESA’s Optical Ground Station, Tenerife, Spain, 31 January 2014, 19:50 UTC Credit: ESA

While we know the comet will not hit Mars, nor our spacecraft, Mars Express, initial observation data lead us to expect that the coma (the cloud of dust particles surrounding the comet’s nucleus) will be big enough to envelop Mars and therefore the spacecraft orbiting it.

Three orbiters are currently active at Mars: NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey, and our Mars Express. Two more that departed Earth in late 2013 are due to enter orbit around Mars about three weeks before the comet Siding Spring flyby: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission.

Further observation of the comet will allow better predictions of the actual size of the coma, and the resulting level of risk to Mars-orbiting spacecraft, but this may not come for several months. Nonetheless, the mission operations team at ESOC have already begun considering ways to best protect Mars Express from the cloud of cometary dust.

The particles in the coma – ranging from 1 to 1/10,000th of a cm in diameter – are not expected to be large. However, they will be travelling toward Mars Express at a staggering 56 km/second (200 000 kph!).

At these speeds, even dust can be dangerous.

Consider that man-made space debris in orbit around Earth, where the relative velocities are ‘merely’ 7 km/second, can seriously harm satellites. The relative velocity for the Siding Spring dust particles will be about eight times faster – but the energy of an impact goes up with the square of the speed, meaning that the energy levels are 64 times higher!

Plus, it is not only the risk of physical damage from an impact the must be considered. Hyper-velocity impacts such as these can generate plasma clouds and electromagnetic pulses, which can cause disruptions with the many electronic systems onboard Mars Express.

The team have been doing a great deal of brainstorming to ‘work the issue’, and one of the obvious solutions lies in how we could adjust our orbit to shield the spacecraft behind the bulk of Mars, for at least part of the encounter if not all.

We also need to determine how can we best orient the spacecraft to reduce the exposure of instruments and critical systems to the coma and comet debris.

The team are also looking at how the many subsystems on board the spacecraft can be configured to ensure the highest possible resilience to the potential risks. Finally, given this opportunity to observe a comet as it passes so close to a rocky planet, we must co-ordinate spacecraft operations with the ESA science teams to accommodate as much science observations of this unique event as possible, consistent with safety.

Our close encounter with Siding Spring is still over nine months away, but the Mars Express team have already begun preparing for it, consulting with experts, industry and scientists and researching a complex set of details, possibilities and what-ifs.

It’s a major challenge, and even if we design and implement the best possible way to deal with the close approach, there’s no guarantee that Mars Express remains unaffected.

We’ll keep you updated here in the blog (and in the main ESA website) to share how we’re tackling these issues, ensuring that both the team and the spacecraft are ready for this incredibly challenging, once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

Siding Spring is currently around 670 million km from Mars, a distance it will cover in just nine months.

The countdown has begun!

Ed: Thanks to Andy, Kees, Simon, Luke and Michel for this great report.

Siding Spring by the numbers

Source: ESA and NASA

  • Date of comet closest approach (CA): 19 October 2014
  • Time of CA: ~18:28 UT
  • *Estimated distance of comet from Mars at CA: 136 000 km from centre || 132 000 km from surface
  • Comet nucleus diameter: Unknown
  • Coma radius: Likely to engulf Mars
  • Time for Mars to pass through coma: Several hours (MEX now orbits Mars every 7 hours)
  • Velocity of cometary dust particles: 56 km/second
  • Dust particles produced by comet (as of 28/1/14):
    100 kg/second

 

Phobos flyby now

As you read this, at 08:09 CET, Mars Express will be making its closest-ever flyby of Phobos!

Earth-Mars relative positions 28 Dec 2013 Credit: NASA/MGCMG/H. Houben

Earth-Mars relative positions 28 Dec 2013 Credit: NASA/MGCMG/H. Houben

MEX is transmitting a continuous radio signal across 208 million km of space, which is being tracked and received by NASA’s 70m station at Madrid. The recording will enable scientists to precisely reconstruct the spacecraft’s trajectory and, hence, know the gravitational influence of Phobos.

The one-way signal time is 11 minutes, 35.4 seconds right now.

If you were standing on the (lumpy) surface of Phobos and looked up, the animation below shows more or less what you would see: ESA’s spacecraft as a pinpoint of light slowly but steadily advancing across the sky.

This animation shows the view in real time from the surface of Phobos.

A few minutes ago, I got an update from the Mars Express Dedicated Control Room at ESOC: everything is going as planned!

The tracking today will continue through until this evening; NASA Goldstone takes over tracking at 11:02 GMT (12:02 CET) until 19:00 GMT (20:00 CET). ESA’s New Norcia station will also shadow track starting at 17:06 GMT (18:06 CET). The MEX transmitter will remain on until tomorrow at 01:12 GMT (02:12 CET).

Months of preparation have culminated in a successful and – As hoped for! – relatively quiet tracking and flyby operation. Best wishes and well done to the ESA and NASA pros who made this work.

This animation shows how the flyby would appear from a vantage point near Mars Express, with Phobos passing by beneath. The relative movement between the spacecraft and moon has been speeded up 10x faster than actual.

 

Update at 06:00CET

This sent in about an hour ago by Andy Johnstone at ESOC.

Update at 05:00GMT

We are now transmitting from NASA’s 70m deep-space station in Madrid, DSS-63, and have released ESA’s 35m station at New Norcia.

The hand-over between the two networks was very smooth with both DSN [NASA] and ESTRACK [ESA] performing their duties exactly on time despite an unusually tight schedule and a hand-over method that is not routinely used.

The telemetry modulation was switched off again at 03:46GMT (04:46CET) and will remain off until shortly after we begin tracking with NASA’s 70m station at Goldstone, California, DSS-14, at 11:23GMT (12:32CET). Until then we will be relying on a system that the NASA tracking stationcolleagues have very helpfully provided for us, in which we can monitor directly their spectrum analysers and check on the quality of the signal.

Everything is currently running as planned and the next event will be the fly-by itself!