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.
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.
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.