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).

 

 

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

First Contact! Mars Express’ first ‘conversation’ with Curiosity

As we reported yesterday, Mars Express had a busy Sunday evening, pointing first at NASA's Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars and then swinging around to do another relay pass with Opportunity. We received the data from both of these passes this morning over ESA's New Norcia ground station and, on first look, it seems that both relays were very successful.

First Laser-Zapped Rock on Mars

First Laser-Zapped Rock on Mars. This composite image, with magnified insets, depicts the first laser test by the Chemistry and Camera, or ChemCam, instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. The composite incorporates a Navigation Camera image taken prior to the test, with insets taken by the camera in ChemCam. The circular insert highlights the rock before the laser test. The square inset is further magnified and processed to show the difference between images taken before and after the laser interrogation of the rock. The test took place on Aug. 19, 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

In ESA's MEX team, we're particularly excited to have had our first contact with Curiosity – proof that the amazing new rover from the United States can talk with our veteran European Mars orbiter!

At the start of the contact, Mars Express was over 3600 km from Curiosity's landing site in Gale Crater and closed in to only 1300 km by the end of the contact – streaking across the sky as seen from Curiosity.

During this overflight by Mars Express, it 'hailed' Curiosity in Gale Crater and the rover responded. The two spacecraft then autonomously established a link with each other and Curiosity flowed data back to Mars Express for nearly 15 minutes. This international chat between two spacecraft in deep space is proof of all our preparation, standardisation and cooperation work in action – so it's something both agencies can be proud of.

ESA's first 35-metre deep-space ground station is situated at New Norcia, 140 kilometres north of Perth in Australia. The 630 tonne antenna will be used to track Rosetta and Mars Express, the latter to be launched in 2003, as well as other missions in deep space. The ground station was officially opened on 5 March 2003 by the Premier of Western Australia, Hon Dr Geoff Gallop. Credits: ESA

ESA's first 35-metre deep-space ground station is situated at New Norcia, 140 kilometres north of Perth in Australia. The 630 tonne antenna will be used to track Rosetta and Mars Express, the latter to be launched in 2003, as well as other missions in deep space. The ground station was officially opened on 5 March 2003 by the Premier of Western Australia, Hon Dr Geoff Gallop.
Credits: ESA

The actual data that flowed back was made available to NASA earlier today, who will now retrieve and process the data.

Hopefully we'll have some info from them in the next couple of days about what exactly was contained within. We'll also receive (within Tuesday) the 'housekeeping' telemetry of Melacom – information on how our radio performed. This will allow us to double-check the performance of this first important contact with Curiosity.

The data was sent at a rate of only 8 kbps – 125 times slower than the 1-Mbit/second Internet connection you might have at home!

We wanted to take things easy to start with, though, and test the performance of the link. Nonetheless, we received 955 data packets from Curiosity, totalling 867 kilobytes of data.

This will be the first of several contacts with Curiosity in the future, as we better learn how to use and optimise this relay link between the two craft and the two space agencies. Watch this space for more details as we get them on this pass and the future contacts between Mars Express and Curiosity.

 

Mars Express rocking and rolling with NASA’s Curiosity & Opportunity

On 19 August, Sunday evening (European time), Mars Express will start its first data relay with NASA's Mars Curiosity rover in style by fitting in not just our first pass with Curiosity but also by 'rolling away' afterwards to talk with NASA's veteran Mars rover, Opportunity.

Still Life with Rover This full-resolution self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation camera. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. The undulating rim of Gale Crater forms the lighter color strip in the background. Bits of gravel, about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) in size, are visible on the deck of the rover. Credit: NASA

Still Life with Rover This full-resolution self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation camera. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. The undulating rim of Gale Crater forms the lighter color strip in the background. Bits of gravel, about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) in size, are visible on the deck of the rover. Credit: NASA

This will be the first time in the history of the Mars Express mission where this double lander contact has been attempted within a single orbit of the spacecraft (1 orbit around Mars for Mars Express lasts around 7 hours).

As the spacecraft approaches the planet it will turn away from Earth and 'roll' over the top of Curiosity's new home in Gale Crater, keeping the Melacom antennas pointed directly at the new rover.

After this contact, Mars Express will turn back to Earth briefly and then spin away again, performing the same 'Spot Pointing' manoeuvre for Opportunity as Mars Express flies over its location in Endeavour Crater. This double relay will be an exciting test of the capabilities of Mars Express, both in relay terms and in pointing, and to not only prove our communication capability with the new (and fantastic!) Curiosity rover but also to continue our commitment to its predecessor – the venerable Opportunity rover.

A Digital Opportunity Rover on Mars Credit: Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Cornell, JPL, NASA Rover Model: D. Maas - Synthetic Image: Z. Gorjian, K. Kuramura, M. Stetson, E. De Jong.

A Digital Opportunity Rover on Mars Credit: Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Cornell, JPL, NASA Rover Model: D. Maas - Synthetic Image: Z. Gorjian, K. Kuramura, M. Stetson, E. De Jong. Via http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap051214.html

The past weeks have seen intense cooperation between NASA and ESA to coordinate and plan these activities, which are intended as demonstrations of the relay capabilities of Mars Express. The overflight of Opportunity will be part of a long-standing activity to periodically check the ability of Mars Express to relay data from Opportunity, if ever needed.

Many of these overflights were done leading up to the landing of Curiosity to cement the technical ability of the two agencies to work together on planning routine relay operations. The overflight of Curiosity will be the first time that Mars Express and Curiosity have actually 'talked' to each other.

During the landing of Curiosity, Mars Express only listened in and recording the radio signal of Curiosity, but Sunday evening, 19 August, the two spacecraft will actually have a 'conversation' and for the first time Mars Express will receive and decode actual data from the lander.

We're confident in the ability of the two spacecraft to be able to communicate for several reasons – the main one being that both implement an international standard called Proximity-1 [this is mentioned in our earlier Melacom post - Ed].

This standard was designed to make sure that even though the spacecraft come from different manufacturers and different agencies, the way they talk to each other is still the same – it can be thought of like an 'agreed common language'.

On top of this, is our extensive experience relaying data for Phoenix, Spirit and Opportunity and the fact that a team from QinetiQ (who built our Melacom radio) travelled to JPL to test a copy of it with a copy of the Curiosity radio. However, any new activity in space is challenging and we stand ready at ESOC to investigate, analyse and improve – optimising our ability to support the Curiosity mission for NASA.

All of this will allow Mars Express to make a call to Curiosity in Gale Crater and between the spacecraft agree autonomously to exchange data. Curiosity will send back data that will be decoded by Mars Express and stored ready for forwarding to Earth; then we'll quickly reset and prepare a very similar activity for Opportunity in Endeavour Crater.

Next, on Monday morning, Mars Express will send the data to ESA's 35m New Norcia (Australia) ground station and then from there it will make its way to ESOC and on to the control room at JPL.

The data's journey will be long (Gale Crater/Endeavour Crater -> Mars Express -> New Norcia, Australia -> ESOC, Germany -> JPL, USA) but we'll make sure it arrives safe and sound – proving the ability of Mars Express to support communications with both Curiosity and Opportunity whenever needed.

We'll post more details when we know the results of the test and can hopefully announce on Monday that Mars Express has been 'qualified' as a really-long-distance relay for Curiosity – expanding the network of spacecraft and cooperation at Mars in spectacular style!

Getting the data back – Store and Forward

This video shows the view of Mars Express from the Earth before, during and after the Curiosity landing. It demonstrates perfectly why we need to use a method called 'store and forward' to get the recording of the descent back to Earth.

At the start and end of the video, you can see Mars Express' big 1.6-m High Gain Antenna (the grey circle on the front of the spacecraft) pointed right at us. We need that to be pointed at us to be able to talk to Mars Express from Earth.

Unfortunately, to support the landing of Curiosity, we need to point our Melacom antennas at the incoming lander, and they're fixed perpendicular to the High Gain antenna. That's why during the middle of the video you see the spacecraft turn the High Gain Antenna away from us - it's so it can get the best possible view of the incoming lander.

In order to relay the recording of the descent, we store the data in our on-board memory - a bit like saving a picture to the memory card on your digital camera.

We have 12 Gigabits of on-board memory, which might sound small compared to your home computer, but it's plenty of space for what we need. Once we turn back to Earth, we can tell the spacecraft to forward the recorded data back to Earth, just like plugging in your camera and downloading the results from the memory card. In fact, due to the criticality of the Curiosity recording, we'll transmit it to Earth three times to make sure it reaches us safely.

So when you're watching the landing tomorrow, note that's why it'll take us a bit of time to swing the spacecraft around and dump the recorded data to ground. The JPL orbiter Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will do the same thing and so will experience a similar delay.

In contrast, the live relay from Mars to Earth will be provided by JPL's venerable Mars Odyssey orbiter, the oldest spacecraft currently operating around Mars. It uses a different mode, called 'bent pipe', where it takes the incoming data and 'bends' it around and blasts it back towards Earth more or less simultaneously.

If all goes according to plan, this direct relay will be NASA's first confirmation of a successful landing, and the detailed recordings made in 'store and forward' by the other two orbiters will follow shortly after to provide us a full picture of this historic landing.

Experience MSL Landing with ‘Eyes on the Solar System’ from JPL

Link

If you liked our animations of Mars Express tracking the landing of MSL then you can watch it live or preview it yourself with a great website from JPL called "Eyes on the Solar System" (http://eyes.jpl.nasa.gov/).

You can see all the different stages of the entry, descent and landing of Curiosity and control the camera and speed yourself to experience the landing in every way possible!

Mars Express to track ‘7 minutes of terror’

Interplanetary cooperation: Mars Express to track Curiosity's dramatic landing on Mars

Welcome to our new Mars Express blog platform (the venerable and hugely valuable MEX blog archive remains available in the Lifetype platform here) where we're delighted to kick-off publishing with our a report on Mars Express' support to Curiosity's arrival at Mars.

On 6 August, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission will conduct a spectacular landing to deliver Curiosity – the largest planetary rover ever flown – onto the Red Planet. ESA’s Mars Express will support the mission’s progress, recording crucial flight data right until ‘wheels down’ on the alien surface.

Mars Express support to NASA MSL arrival at Mars Credit: NASA/ESA

Mars Express support to NASA MSL arrival at Mars Credit: NASA/ESA

At around 07:10 CEST, Mars Express will point its MELACOM communication antenna towards the trajectory of NASA's MSL and start recording its arrival at the Red Planet early in the morning of the 6th. The data will provide an important and potentially crucial back-up to NASA's own data and will help reconstruct the entry profile; MSL is also being tracked by NASA's Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

Furthermore, several of ESA's ESTRACK ground stations – the massive 35m deep-space antennas at Cebreros, Spain, and New Norcia, Australia – will also be involved.

Mars Express tracks Curiosity's arrival at Mars Credit: ESA/NASA

Mars Express tracks Curiosity's arrival at Mars Credit: ESA/NASA

There's a nice web report today in the main ESA web portal (see "ESA's Mars Express to support dramatic landing on Mars"). For a fuller, more detailed technical overview of Mars Express involvement in NASA's historic mission, click on the 'Continue reading' link below.

In the next two weeks, we'll provide regular updates here in the blog as the Mars Express team at ESA get ready for landing.

And don't miss NASA's great '7 Minutes of Terror video'!

Continue reading