VMC Schools campaign projects

Get ready to do a lot of scrolling! This is our biggest, baddest blog post ever! #VMCSchools

ESA_AnimationThey're in!

We're starting to receive projects from the schools, youth groups and clubs that are taking part in our VMC Imaging Campaign, and the results are simply superb!

This blog post will present the ones we've received so far, and we'll update you in future posts once we get the rest (several participants asked for extensions past the 31 July deadline until September, so it will still be a few weeks – but that's fine when the quality is this good!).

To recap: In March/April, VMC imaging target proposals were submitted by 25 schools, youth groups and clubs in 12 countries. After extensive analysis, the Mars Express team at ESOC confirmed 22 were doable, given spacecraft and priority science constraints; later, the remaining three participates agreed to take over alternate targets so, in fact, all 25 received image sets. Imaging took place during several dedicated orbits 25/26 May, and we distributed image sets via email the first week in June.

Here's a little teaser animation developed by the MEX team using most of the 1000+ images acquired as part of the VMC Schools campaign, mashed up to show a full orbit:

Since then, participating groups have been working on analysis of their images, and on educational projects that make use of the images in imaginative, scientific and/or artistic ways (this is a STEAM activity, after all!). And the results are well worth the wait!

Here's the first impression sent in from the MEX team at ESOC, courtesy Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Engineer Andy Johnstone:

You've all achieved what we wanted to accomplish with this project by taking our fairly basic VMC images and doing some really cool things with them! Some of your efforts in image processing have been spectacular and deserve to be published in an astronomy magazine! Your artistry has been amazing and helped brighten up our control room, while the stories, videos and imaginings of visits to the Red Planet have been awesome.

The main thing that's stood out to us is the passion and enthusiasm that you've all shown. That has really made us proud and we're very glad that this opportunity (conjunction season!) to get so many VMC images came up. We're planning to have another webcast in September, once the final two projects are in, to go through each of your projects and give you all some feedback.

Thank you all for the effort you've put in and we hope that if we manage to do anything similar in the future that you'll all take part again.

Herewith, we are tremendously delighted (and I dare say just a little proud!) to present (in alphabetical order) the first sets of results and projects from ESA's VMC Imaging Campaign.

Associazione Astronomica Antares, Foligno, Italy
Target: Cavi Angusti

Analysis of atmosphere and ice cap

AIM: The chosen region of Mars (Cavi Angusti, a latin name as almost all the geological Mars structures) is located in the south polar region of the Red planet, and is characterized by vast and deep valleys where the thin atmosphere of Mars can produce fogs or mists with daily development. The Mars Express spacecraft passed several times over Cavi Angusti at a distance of about 3000 km, at different times of Martian days, thus allowing us to study the area with a detail of a few kilometres, enough to reveal any cloud formations.

VMC Schools Campaign - results from Antares Foligno

VMC Schools Campaign - results from Antares Foligno

Results from Antares Foligno

Results from Antares Foligno

Aspiration Creation, Dunwoody, GA, USA
Target: South Pole

Project report: The South Pole - A Comparison/Contrast of Planets Earth and Mars During Summer Solstice

Project PPT in website

  • Our images are of Mars’ South Pole in Summer
  • We separated into groups to research the south poles of Mars and Earth, focusing on Summer
  • Each group was responsible for finding information (and pictures) and becoming the Subject Expert on that information
  • Subject Experts took notes and were required to explain their findings to the rest of the larger group
  • Everyone collaborated to aggregate findings into a list
  • Final list was used to create a Venn Diagram illustrating differences and similarities
Aspiration Creation

Aspiration Creation

Aspiration Creation

Aspiration Creation

Curiosity Laboratory, Asociacion Codec de Madrid, Spain
Target: SHARP MOUNTAIN (where Curiosity landed)

AIM: We would like also to reflect, using the images facilitated by ESA, on the challenges that exploring our dear red planet pose, and on how they can be overcome so that men can get to Mars.

We have used your Mars images about Aeolis Mons in our "space and robotic project" with our children in CODEC. Please, find our latest video "Arriving Mars 2020", performing the whole Mars missions! And with this CURIOSITY LAB FINAL VIDEO we would like to complete our project with ESA. THANK YOU and ESA so much for all this fantastic images!

Hathern Primary School,  Leicestershire, UK
Target: Meridian I Planum

AIM: To investigate the conclusion that water was present on Mars looking at surface features such as hematite. Investigate extremophiles present on Earth that may have been present on Mars both in the watery past, and present dry conditions. Come to conclusions about what bio signatures may be present to provide evidence of former or current life. Draw and make artistic representations of life on Mars. Write a poem about life on Mars.

Project PPT

Project art

Project art in Flickr

Slide35Hathern School art

Hathern School art

mars art images_Page_22Slide45

HTBLA Kaindorf, Kaindorf an der Sulm, Austria
Target: Martian Northpole

AIM: Image the Northpole, because we want to find the best landing site for a manned mission. In winter Planum Boreum's permanent ice cap consisting mainly of water ice and carbondioxid reaches its maximum. So we can find ground without ice to land on, but has water nearby.

Project website (EN): http://www.htl-kaindorf.at/mars/

Project website (DE): http://www.htl-kaindorf.at/mars/indexDE.html

Project website (ES): http://www.htl-kaindorf.at/mars/indexES.html

Life on MarsClick for a fabulous animation!ESA_Animation40 October 2043:: The best 'glimpse of the future' we've seen! How an astronaut will view Mars, courtesy of the Mars Express VMC and HTBLA Kaindorf.

Innovation Centre Mill of Knowledge, Toruń, Poland Target: System of canyons: Valles Marineris (Location: 13.8S, 59.2W)

AIM: This is interesting because: the Valles Marineris rift system is one of the larger canyons of the Solar System and stretches for nearly a quarter of the planet’s circumference. It has been recently suggested that Valles Marineris is a large tectonic "crack" in the Martian crust. Most researchers agree that this formed as the crust thickened in the That is region to the west, and was subsequently widened by erosion. However, near the eastern flanks of the rift, there appear to be some channels that may have been formed by water or carbon dioxide. The Valles Marineris canyon system is is such a great example of the planet's tectonic activity and place of geological processes occurrence. In addition, it is possible that in these canyons once flowed water and this could be a friendly place for the emergence and development of life on Mars. Project PPT Project video Project images in Flickr      VMC Schools Workshop, Poland

IES Alpujarra, Spain
Target: Olympus Mons or whichever frustum-like mountain whose dimensions are well known and easily available

AIM: Kids will firstly work out the picture scale using data available on the Internet and the picture itself. Secondly, they'll calculate some distances in a straight line and the dimensions and areas of some shapes that may be found on the picture. Thirdly, we'll try to determine some slopes on the picture to work out an average. Finally, we'll calculate the approximate area and volume of Mount Olympus thinking of it as a frustum. The results will be presented in English.

Project webpage:

IES Alpujarra - ESA

IES Alpujarra - ESA

Student worksheet:

Out of This World Space Program, Marietta, GA USA
Target: Elysium Mons

Aim: Convert picture to a 3D scaled model and present it to the Science lab or make a puzzle with the picture or make posters that we could place in a local park to teach the general public about the awesomeness of Mars and ESA.

Project PPT

Artemis13 from Mt. Bethel Media Center on Vimeo.

State Gymnasium No. 1, Riga, Latvia
Target: Ares Vallis (19.13 N, 33.22 W), located in the northern hemisphere or Mars

AIM: This is a great target because:

  1. Its a very large feature(1700km diameter). and easily noticeable
  2. It is possible it was carved by fluids from when Mars still had liquid water on its surface. There are numerous estuaries and deltas of past rivers.
  3. Large amount of craters
  4. The NASA probe Pathfinder sits in Ares Vallis.
  5.  Mark Watney, the character from the popular fictional book "The Martian" travels through Ares Vallis and even recovers the Pathfinder
  6. Last time Mars Express took photos of the Valleys was back in 2007


Sterrenwacht de Polderster, Assenede, Belgium Target: Phillips crater

AIM: Would like to do astrophoto processsing. The height (1900km) of the spacecraft is not too low. Images of 200ms must be possible to resolve. 15-146-VMC merge 48-66 10ms with labels PV and SL


Processed images via Flickr

Sternwarte Siebengebirge e.V., Bad Honnef, Germany
Target: Olympus Mons / Tharsis region, Volcanoes

AIM: By participating in the VMC Imaging Campaign we aim to achieve:

  • The inspiration and enthusiasm of children, adolescents and adults in the subject of space, astronomy, space travel, ESA and in particular the Mars Express mission
  • The wider publication and awareness of the Mars Express research results, also through our own publications
  • The promotion of scientific knowledge about our neighboring planet Mars
  • The combination of science and art
  • The promotion of our present knowledge of the volcanoes on Mars in comparison with the volcanic past of the Siebengebirge and the nearby Vulkan-Eifel
  • The awareness of our new club by a wider audience
  • Raising public awareness of our aim to create a planet park and a stationary observatory in the Siebengebirge nature reserve.

Project website

Sternwarte Siebengebirge

Sternwarte Siebengebirge

RESULTS TBC: The club jury will view the works of art from the participating schools and select the most striking piece. The award to the best work of art will take place at a public exhibition. The school being awarded first place will be presented with a new telescope for educational use. Thereafter there will be a presentation on the subject of the VMC Imaging Campaign, Olympus Mons and volcanoes on Mars and on Earth (in particular in the Siebengebirge region).

Children's Club Reegulus, University of Tartu Museum, Old Observatory, Tartu, Estonia, Target: Terra Meridiani

AIM: Our project is called “Picture can say more than a thousand words.” Our aim is to see what are the thousand words we can say about the picture in order to discuss with the children the ways in which we can study other planets in comparison to our own. We would like to use the image to study Martian landscape in detail with the children also with the help of geologists from the University of Tartu Natural History Museum. In addition to geology, we would also like to use the materials as part of the Struve Arc celebrations talking about mapping Earth and Mars. After we have discussed the features seen in the picture, the children will choose the thousand words to be featured on a poster with the picture. This poster will be shown in our museum for the public and we will introduce this also at a large festival taking place in July festival that also has a science section. We already have a programme for schools where we compare the atmospheres of Earth, Mars, Venus and Titan to each other and discuss why we should appreciate our environment.

Children's Club Reegulus

Poster display by Children's Club Reegulus at Science Festival

Poster as displayed at the Tartu Science Festival

We printed out a number of images and posted them on a whiteboard. Then we began adding words and questions to the whiteboard: what we saw, what we knew and what else we needed to find out. We visited the University of Tartu Natural History Museum to find out about the geology of Mars. After the visit, we added more words, statements and questions to our board. During the final meeting we tried to answer as much questions as possible with the aid of literature and internet and decided on the content of the poster. The poster was finished for a science festival we had in Tartu in July 2015 and the visitors of the festival were able to read it. We also filmed the whole process but unfortunately were not able to secure everyone's permission to publish this.  Perhaps we will do a trailer version later.

The poster gives an overview of Mars that is based mostly on what we saw from the images and the questions that came to our mind while looking at the pictures. The children were most fascinated about the volcanoes, the possibility of life on Mars and, of course, when will we land a human on Mars.


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).



Controlling Mars Express – How cool is that?

This afternoon, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, conducting her #futura42 science mission on board the International Space Station, took a moment to recognise the dozens of students in 25 groups from 12 countries who are taking part in the VMC Schools Campaign. Thank you, astro Sam! Your interest in #STEM and in exploring space is inspiring to everyone – especially young, future planetary scientists/astronauts!

A bit later, @esaoperations replied:

Update 28 May

Today's update from the MEX team at ESOC on progress of the VMC Schools Campaign, via Spacecraft Operations Engineer Simon Wood.

All VMC observations are complete and ran as planned; all images are now on ground. Initial processing has begun!

With approximately 2000 of them, Simon mentions that it is going to take a bit of time to prepare, process and sort the images for distribution to the VMC Schools participants. We'll keep you updated.

VMC Schools Campaign: Uploading commands

Update from MEX Spacecraft operations Engineer Simon Wood at ESOC

The commands to run next week's observations are now all confirmed on board Mars Express!

To give an idea of what these commands are and what they look like, here is a screen shot from the mission control system showing the commands on board for the first observation orbit on Monday, 25 May.

Uploading command stack to Mars Express

Uploading command stack to Mars Express

In essence, they are broken down into three groups: turning the spacecraft away from Earth (we call this a 'slew'), the observation itself and then the slew back to pointing at Earth.

For the first group, the slew away, we first have a command to set what we call the 'out of Earth timeout'; this starts a timer by the end of which the spacecraft must be back to Earth pointing. If it is not Earth pointing when the timer expires, then the spacecraft will put itself in safe mode.

This is a precaution that is taken for every pointing we do; in the event of a problem, the spacecraft won't get stuck pointing the wrong way.

There are then the commands to update the mode in which the attitude and orbit control system (AOCS) is in and to tell the craft to start to slew. Finally, there are commands to update the position of the solar arrays to ensure that when the spacecraft has turned to its new attitude, that sufficient power is being generated.

Once in position, we can then start the observation.

Here we have the command to start the on-board control procedure (OBCP), which is a small computer program that runs on board the spacecraft and that controls the VMC camera. This program switches on and initialises the camera (this takes around two minutes) and then it enters into the programmed observations.

For the VMC Schools Campaign, this is means taking approximately 1 image per minute, cycling through 3 exposure settings. As this is a long-duration observation, there are also a group of commands that will keep updating the AOCS such that it keeps turning the spacecraft to keep Mars in the view of VMC.

The final group is the end of observation activities. Here we start another OBCP, which switches VMC off. Then the solar arrays are commanded to rotate again to optimise the power output and AOCS is then commanded to turn the spacecraft so the antenna is pointing at Earth.

After that, the transmitter will then switch on and the on-board computer will begin sending the VMC images back to Earth.

– Simon Wood

Working with VMC images – some brilliant examples and howtos

Several of the VMC Schools Campaign participants have asked, "What can we do with the images?" There's no better way to answer this that to provide some links to past projects that have been done by schools, astronomy clubs and even individuals – all of which are very good and some of which are brilliant!

A year of VMC images

Locating Mars geographical features

VMC Project at Humboldt Gymnasium, Vatterstetten, Germany

Emily Lakdawalla - How to work with VMC images

Amateur processing/contributions

ESAHangout: Mars Express lined up for VMC Schools Campaign


22 May - Start 11:00 EDT / 15:00 GMT / 17:00 CEST http://goo.gl/Yw8P5p

Prior to flying the campaign orbits on 25/26 May, this will be the final interactive Q&A session with the Mars Express flight control team for participants in the VMC Schools Campaign. Priority for questions will go to school/club participants. Questions can be posted in the ESA G+ channel or via Twitter using the #VMCSchools hashtag.

Orbit visualisations – 25/26 May 2015

These three animations give you an accurate visualisation of the three orbits that will be dedicated to the VMC Schools campaign next week. We'll Ask the MEX team to explain these in detail during Friday's ESAHangout. They are posted below in the order in which they'll be flown.

What you see in them is VMC's view of Mars during the observations.

Video 1 - DOY 145 (25 May) Orbits 14456,14457 14458 Starting at 05:25 to 21:00

Video 2 DOY 146 (26 May) Orbit 14459 Stating 03:00 - 08:00.

Video 3 Doy 146 (26 May) Orbit 14461 -14462 Starting 21:30 - 06:45

#ESAHangout – Friday 22 May 15:00GMT start

Thank you to everyone who replied to the Doodle poll!

Friday, 22 May, 15:00GMT - 16:30 GMT appears to be the best time slot for the most VMC School campaign participants, so let's go with that. Go ahead and block that slot in your calendars (as will the MEX team). We'll post details here in the blog later this week on how to join the #ESAHangout and how to post questions.

Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Engineer Simon Wood adds that, by Friday at 15:00GMT, the command stack that will trigger the VMC observations during 'your' three orbits next week should already be on board Mars Express!

VMC Schools Campaign imaging plan complete!

The imaging plan with the overall target list for the VMC Schools Campaign is complete!

The MEX team have done a great job reconciling the proposed targets with all the conflicting requirements of the spacecraft, the mandated technical testing that MEX must do, the communication slots, pointing restrictions, etc.

We are delighted to announce that, of the 25 proposals for imaging targets accepted for planning, 22 will be possible. And, for two of the three that are not possible, we have an alternative that may be equally valuable to the proposers!

Before you scroll down to the list below, please note several points:

  • For targets in the northern hemisphere and for equatorial targets (e.g. Tharisis, Valles Marineris, etc.), we will conduct imaging at (mostly) 8000-10 000km altitude.
  • For targets in the southern polar regions (Cavi Angusti, Phillips crater) we will be able to acquire images from much lower, at about 2000 km.
  • Irrespective of height, the proposals in green are the ones we believe we can do and get optimum results.
  • The ones in yellow are possible, but the VMC cannot be pointed directly at them and so the images won't be centred on the target. While this is not ideal, it's still pretty good. The green and yellow targets will be programmed into the Mars Express mission plan for the last week in May.

Red targets

There are three requested observation targets that are, after a great deal of analysis, highly problematic or impossible.

  1. North Pole: For the two observations proposed for imaging the North Pole, we will only see that area when it is about 90% in shadow, so you really wouldn't see much. As an alternative – and if the proposers (HTBLA Kaindorf, Austria, and Aspiration Creation, USA, can accept) – we will be going over the South Pole under pretty good illumination conditions, and you could get images of that area. Just let us know!
  2. Phobos: Imaging of Phobos (requested by School for Tomorrow, USA) will just not be possible – on the two occasions when Phobos crosses the disk of Mars (and so would be visible), we have an unavoidably higher-priority radio science pass.

The MEX team are now preparing a final mission plan, and we will have an animation and further details for you early next week.

Google Hangout

We would also like to schedule a Google+ Hangout on 20, 21 or 22 May to provide interactive answers to as many of the teams as possible. We've set up a Doodle poll to determine which date/time is best for the most. PLEASE COMPLETE THE DOODLE HERE to let us know.

And finally, here's the list!

VMC Schools image campaign - accepted

VMC Schools image campaign - accepted