Fostering Curiosity: Mars Express relays first science data

The data are finally here!

You’ll recall our blog posting early in October (see Mars Express to relay first science data from Mars Curiosity) when we got word that Mars Express would, for the first time, relay actual science data from NASA’s Curiosity. Now, after a bit of a wait, we’ve got the the images transferred by Mars Express plus some nice context images showing the rocky target, thanks to Roger Wiens, PI on ChemCam, and several of the colleagues at NASA.

Colour image of Rockenest3, about as big as a shoebox Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Colour image of Rockenest3, about as big as a shoebox Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

There’s a full report in ESA web today (see Fostering Curiosity: Mars Express relays rocky images to NASA), which is well worth a quick read.

To summarise, MEX relayed a set of two close-up images of target ‘Rocknest3’ acquired by the the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) on the ChemCam on 4 October 2012 (Sol 57). ChemCam is more than only a ‘cam(era)’; it actually comprises two units – the RMI plus the Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS). (See the ChemCam instrument page here). LIBS works by firing a laser at targets and analysing the chemical composition of the vaporised material. Is that cool, or what?

Our web report (and this blog post!) includes the two close-up RMI images plus two more: an RMI mosaic (combination of several images) showing the LIBS targets on Rocknest3, as well as a wider angle view of Rocknest3, acquired separately by Curiosity’s MastCam.

Without further ado – voilà! The images relayed by MEX:

ChemCam image of Rocknest3 relayed by Mars Express Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

ChemCam image of Rocknest3 relayed by Mars Express Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

ChemCam image of Rocknest3 relayed by Mars Express Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

ChemCam image of Rocknest3 relayed by Mars Express Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

These two images were taken on sol 57 (4 October 2012) of target Rocknest3 using the ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) on the NASA Curiosity rover at a distance of 3.7 m. The images were downlinked to Earth using ESA’s Mars Express orbiting spacecraft. The first image above was taken before a series of five ChemCam Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS) observations and the second image was taken after. The first image is centred on the fifth LIBS observation point. Rocknest is the name of the area where Curiosity stopped for a month to perform its first mobile laboratory analyses on soil scooped from a small sand dune. Rocknest3 was a convenient nearby target of which ChemCam made more than 30 observations overall consisting of 1500 laser shots; it was also interrogated by the arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS)  instrument. Credits: NASA/JPL–Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP

The two processed RMI images were sent to us here at ESOC by Roger Wiens, ChemCam PI (principal investigator) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, USA. Thanks, Roger, for the images and caption above!

The RMI mosaic image – showing the LIBs targets on Rocknest3 – was produced by Stéphane Le Mouélic, a research engineer at France’s Université de Nantes and one of the collaborators on ChemCam (access the team bios here).

Mosaic: ChemCam laser targets on Rocknest3 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGN/CNRS

Mosaic: ChemCam laser targets on Rocknest3 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGN/CNRS

Stéphane is also co-investigator on the Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer (OMEGA) on Mars Express.

The MastCam image was processed courtesy of Mike Malin of Malin Space Science Systems (as far as we’ve heard at ESOC, all these images will also go into the NASA/JPL website).

In a mail sent in earlier, Stéphane wrote:

I can just tell you that several of us in the ChemCam team are also involved in the Mars Express mission, and, as such, this successful communication of data between the two spacecraft also takes a sentimental value. Mars Express has provided a wealth of information and has paved the way for a new generation of explorers such as Curiosity. Making the two spacecraft work together is not only scientifically and technologically interesting, but also representative of how the collaboration of agencies is advancing science.

The Deputy PI for ChemCam is also French; Sylvestre Maurice is based in Toulouse, at France’s Institut de recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP). Along with PI Roger Wiens, he was responsible for the design, construction, testing and delivery of the LIBS instrument on ChemCam (“ChemCam is the greatest of all instruments, the ‘Jedi light-saber’ of the MSL mission!”).

Sylvestre wrote:

To me, the cooperation between ESA and NASA extends even further: the RMI camera is a spare of a series of cameras on ESA’s Rosetta mission, scheduled to arrive at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. ESA-NASA and MSL-Rosetta – a spirit of collaboration!

Finally, we also heard from Brigitte Gondet, who is also a collaborator on both ChemCam and Mars Express at Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS):

The quality of the images provided by the RMI camera (the head was developed at France’s IAS and optics developed at IRAP) is outstanding. The context information for the LIBS analyses has proved essential for the scientific interpretation of the data. This combination of imaging and analysis has demonstrated its potential for future missions.

ESA–NASA cooperation at Mars is a continuing success, and, in this case, there is also tremendous involvement of the co-PIs and collaborators on the ChemCam science team from France!


IAS – Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale

IRAP – The Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology – opened in 2011. IRAP is a new mixed research unit of the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) and University Paul Sabatier, Toulouse.

Melacom – Europe’s voice & ears at Mars


A photo of the Melacom UHF communications package carried on Mars Express. Credit: QinetiQ

When Curiosity lands on Mars, the radio receiver on Mars Express which will be listening in is Melacom. This radio was developed for Mars Express by the UK company, QinetiQ in order to support the Beagle-2 lander which was carried on Mars Express.

Sadly the Beagle-2 lander failed to land successfully, but the Melacom lander communications package was not wasted and has been used to contact every single Mars lander to successfully land since the Mars Express launch in 2003.

Mars Express has a large X-Band and S-Band radio system that lets it talk to Earth, but Melacom was specially designed as a separate UHF radio system to let it talk to landers on the surface of Mars. The radio supports a number of different modes, including the ability to hold a two-way data communication with a lander and the open loop mode we described earlier. It implements a standard known as Proximity-1, developed by CCSDS – an international committee that works on standards such as this to ensure that any spacecraft can talk to any other, such as the European Mars Express and the American Curiosity [more details on the excellent work done at CCSDS by ESA, NASA and other agencies here – Ed.].

Melacom Communications System Installed On- board Mars Express

Another shot of Melacom after installation on Mars Express, taken while the spacecraft was being built.

The radio has been used successfully many times, including open loop recording of JPL’s Phoenix lander as it landed on Mars in 2008.

In preparation for the arrival of Curiosity, our in-flight testing intensified and we’ve conducted a number of demonstration passes with NASA’s Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover, operated by JPL. During these passes we demonstrated the ability of spacecraft from two agencies to coordinate and work together at Mars, exchanging telemetry data and commands and conducting recordings.

In anticipation of the arrival, a team from QinetiQ also took a test model of the Melacom radio to JPL to perform ground compatibility testing with a similar model of the Curiosity radio. Through all of these activities, we’re confident that we’ll all be speaking the same language at Mars when Curiosity arrives tomorrow.

To learn a lot more in depth information about the Melacom radio and our support of the Curiosity mission using it, take a look at this conference paper by our Melacom engineer, Olivier Reboud.