VMC Imaging Campaign

Welcome to the VMC Imaging Campaign!

Information for schools, astronomy clubs, science centres and any other eligible group wishing to take part. Official hashtag: #vmcschools

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

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/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Mars is approaching solar conjunction where it will be on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth; this will affect communication with the spacecraft for a period of about five weeks and so science observations have to be stopped.

During this particular Solar conjunction, the Mars Express team will be stopping science four days earlier than usual for operational reasons. Part of this time is to be used to run tests on spacecraft subsystems, but we have an exciting plan with what to do with the remainder!


 How would you like to be a scientist on a Mars mission?


 Read full details in the Mars Express blog

A year of VMC Mars images

Bill Dunford, over at the Planetary Society, has posted a super-nice composite of VMC images. Great work, Bill!

A Year of VMC Mars Images

CC licensing for all VMC images

Effective immediately, all VMC images - past, present and future - are released by ESA under a CC license.

CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This work is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) licence. The user is allowed to reproduce, distribute, adapt, translate and publicly perform this publication, without explicit permission, provided that the content is accompanied by an acknowledgement that the source is credited as 'ESA - European Space Agency’, a direct link to the licence text is provided (see example below) and that it is clearly indicated if changes were made to the original content. Adaptation/translation/derivatives must be distributed under the same licence terms as this publication. To view a copy of this license, please visit creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/igo

Credit: ESA - European Space Agency, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Access the full VMC image archive

It's been a busy week for Mars with the announcement that NASA's Curiosity rover has made the first definitive detection of Martian organic chemicals in material on the surface (see "NASA Rover Finds Active and Ancient Organic Chemistry on Mars"). We've known for some time that there's methane in the atmosphere (see "Mars Express confirms methane in the Martian atmosphere"), but this is the first confirmation of organic carbon in a rock on Mars.

Our own (much more modest!) contribution to Mars news this week comes right here at the VMC blog.  We are delighted to announce that, in addition to the full image sets in Flickr, the entire VMC RAW-format image archive is now available for download.

The archive contains the unprocessed versions of every image the VMC camera on Mars Express has ever taken since launch back in 2003. These include the 2003 Beagle separation images, the Earth observation from 2014 and the images used to create the 2012 full orbit videos!

The data are available in two ways:

  • There are zip files containing the full image set for each individual observation with the date and time of the observation in the zip file name; these are arranged in folders for each year/month with subfolders containing that month's observations.
  • We also have full yearly sets of observations for download to make it easier for those who want to get the entire dataset; note the gap between 2003-2007 is due to VMC not being used in this period.

These files are contain exactly what was/is sent back to Earth from Mars Express. The only processing performed by the mission team at ESOC is to extract the image data from the packets received from the spacecraft and assemble these into the individual raw-format image files (as each image is split across several packets). As a result, anyone who wants to have a go at processing these files is working with genuine raw spacecraft data.

Note that for Flickr, we currently run the downloaded images through a standard set of tools to adjust contrast sharpness and colour levels – exactly the same processing is done for every image VMC acquires. While this produces some good pictures, it is clear that tailoring processing to a specific image can bring out even more details and an even better end result.

We invite you to give it a try! Some of the best VMC images we have seen have been those processed by members of the public.

Further information about the image format and about VMC itself can be found in our FAQ page.

More cool news

The other big upgrade we can announce is that the extraction and upload of the files downloaded from Mars Express – both to the raw archive and Flickr – has now been automated such that the images will be available in both archives within hours of them arriving on Earth, day or night.

This automated process is also now connected to the @esamarswebcam Twitter account, so when new images are uploaded, anyone who follows this account will be notified straight away! So, really, following the @esamarswebcam Twitter account is the best way to be kept up to date with VMC images as they are delivered live from Mars!

– Simon Wood
MEX Spacecraft Operations Engineer

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

Earth seen from Mars: We are here

As you have seen from our recent blog posts and Flickr updates, VMC has been busy capturing some spectacular views of Mars.

However on 3 July, we once again turned away from Mars to look towards a more distant target.

Earth seen from Mars. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Earth seen from Mars. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Ever since our successful test of the VMC camera's long exposure mode (which brought us our first direct images of Phobos), there's one observation we've been keen to attempt:

An image of Earth!

Our chance observation of Jupiter in April served double duty as a dry run to evaluate if VMC stood a chance of detecting the famous pale blue dot.

With the success of the Jupiter pictures, we felt there was a good possibility that, whilst Earth would likely be faint, it would just be visible.

However, imaging Earth from a Mars-orbiting spacecraft using a camera with no specialised optics is not as simple as it sounds. So we thought we'd provide a brief overview of the kind of things that go into taking a picture like this.

One of the first issues we had deal with was determining the optimal time to take the photo.

Earth and Mars are both orbiting the Sun at different rates, so the angle between them regularly gets larger then smaller.

The larger the Mars-Sun-Earth angle, then – when viewed from Mars – the larger the percentage of Earth that is illuminated. So, you might conclude that we should take the image when this angle as big as possible.

However there are two problems with this:

  1. If this angle is very large, then Earth is much further away from Mars and thus will appear much smaller.
  2. The larger this angle gets, when we look towards Earth from Mars, the narrower the Mars/Sun angle gets. This means that the Sun will then be in the field of view of the camera.

This is not only prohibited in the interests the safety of our instruments but would also mean imaging something as faint as the Earth would be impossible as the light from the Sun would blind the camera.

The problem is illustrated below.

Mars-Sun-Earth angles. Credit: ESA

Mars-Sun-Earth angles. Credit: ESA

So what we needed was some middle ground, a period where the angle is large enough such that a sufficient amount of Earth is illuminated, but not so large that the Sun is too close to the camera's field of view.

With the help of JPL's HORIZONS solar system ephemerides computation service we were able to work out that the solid angle of the illuminated fraction of Earth was at its maximum on 21 June this year. We then tried to find an observation opportunity as close to this date as possible.

To keep the Sun as far from the camera's field of view as possible, it was decided we would not aim to have the Earth in the centre of the image, but instead offset it by 10 degrees.

The solid angle of the illuminated fraction of the Earth was at its maximum on 21 June this year. Date via JPL Horizons. Credit: ESA

The solid angle of the illuminated fraction of the Earth was at its maximum on 21 June this year. Date via JPL Horizons. Credit: ESA

The next issue we encountered was the need to tell the spacecraft to point VMC at Earth.

On Mars Express, our instrument platform is fixed to the spacecraft, so to point our instruments at a particular spot we have to turn and point the entire spacecraft.

To determine where we point the spacecraft, first the instrument teams have to tell our Science Planning team based at ESAC, in Spain, where they want their instruments to point and when. This is processed by the science planners and then sent here to ESOC to the Mars Express mission planning team.

Our mission planning system takes in all of the pointing requests that our science planners have sent, analyses them to check for critical factors like power consumption, illumination of the solar arrays and data generation as well as other constraints and requirements.

Screenshot: Mars Express mission planning system. Credit: ESA

Screen shot: Mars Express mission planning system. Credit: ESA

If all checks are OK, one of the outputs is a list containing an entire month's set of spacecraft pointings.

To fit in with this process, we generated a single new VMC 'Earth' pointing by using a software tool we developed ourselves. This new pointing was then added to the monthly list sent by the science planners and processed and checked by the mission planning system.

This set of spacecraft pointings is then sent off to the flight dynamics team here at ESOC. They are able to determine the spacecraft's exact position at any point in time.

Combining this information and knowledge of the spacecraft layout and the position of each instrument, they are able to calculate the orientation the spacecraft must have for it to point a specific instrument toward its desired target.

These calculations are performed for an entire month of observations, while checking that the pointings do not violate any safety constraints. Implementing, maintaining, enforcing and providing strict constraints protects delicate optics and sensors against the perils of excessive heating and over-illumination by the Sun.

As with all spacecraft pointings, our custom Earth pointing had to pass these strict tests for us to be permitted to attempt the observation.

After flight dynamics completed their analysis, the results were then returned back to mission planning, where they can be converted into sets of commands for the spacecraft's attitude and orbit control system.

Once these commands are generated they are checked by the mission planners and the flight control team before being uplinked to Mars Express (once per week).

At this point, the observation has been scheduled, the pointing commands have been generated and checked and up-linked to the spacecraft and the final stage was to then create the command sequence to operate the camera.

This involves telling it when to switch on, how many images to take, the exposure settings to use and when to switch off – and to tell the on-board computer to generate a report of the amount of data the observation produced to enable us to keep track of the volume of stored data on board the spacecraft.

As we expected Earth to be faint, and to maximise our chances of getting a decent image, we decided to use the same settings as our Jupiter pictures, as they contained a wide range exposures from 30 seconds down to 2 seconds.

VMC Earth observation commands in the Mars Express mission control system. Credit: ESA

VMC Earth observation commands in the Mars Express mission control system. Credit: ESA

Once this is all on board the spacecraft, we then have to wait until the images are taken and then down-linked, where we can then run them through our processing tools.

So after all that, here it is.. the Earth, at a distance of 150 031 705 km taken on 3 July 2014 at 15:52 CET from orbit around Mars.

Earth seen from Mars. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Earth seen from Mars. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

The bright patches you can see are sunlight hitting the top of the recess VMC sits in and then being reflected off the camera lens.

However, on the 2-second exposure, this glare is reduced sufficiently to leave Earth clearly visible in the middle left of the image (Note: the colours here are the result of the processing tool we run the VMC images through).

At first glance it doesn't look like a particularly exciting photo. Some lens flare and a small faint dot are visible.

Earth seen from Mars. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Earth seen from Mars. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

However, remember: there are 7 billion people living on that small faint dot!

This quote from Carl Sagan describing the famous Voyager 1 photo 'pale blue dot' sums it up rather nicely:

Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there.

As usual, these images along with every other photo VMC has taken are available on our flickr channel.

Editor's note: Thanks to Simon Wood and the entire MEX team for these excellent images and report.

 

Mars seen today

Excellent views of Mars acquired by the VMC today at 07:00 CEST (05:00 UTC), and downloaded within hours, transmitted to ESOC in Darmstadt, processed by the Mars Express team and... here it is! Thanks to the MEX team and Simon Wood.

Mars at 08:00 CEST today, with the MER-B landing site annotated. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Mars at 07:00 CEST today, with the MER-B landing site annotated. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Hot on the heels of yesterday's images, here are today's set fresh off the spacecraft; again we see possible clouds/dust round the poles.

These images were taken at an altitude of 9900 km above the surface at 07:00 CEST (5:00 UTC) this morning and transmitted back to Earth at 13:15 CEST (11:15 UTC).

This rapid turn around is in part due to the current Earth - Mars distance being 'only' 123 336 112 km. At this distance it only takes 6 mins 51 seconds for signals travel from the spacecraft to Earth. (As we get further away this can increase to up to 25 minutes.)

One-way light timePropagation delay display on the Mars Express Mission Control System

This proximity gives us higher data transmission rates, which mean we can transmit more of the stored data from the science instruments – and thus occasionally leaves us with spare data downlink capacity in some of our ground station passes. This spare capacity enables us to schedule the VMC data dumps much closer to the VMC observations.

Continuing from yesterday's highlighting of the Phoenix lander, here we have marked the landing site of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover B - Opportunity.

Opportunity is a fellow seasoned Martian explorer; it was launched only 5 days after Mars Express on 7 June 2003, landing on 25 January 2004 – one month after we entered Martian orbit.

This false-colour image of the interior of 'Endurance Crater' on Mars was collected on 4 August 2004 by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. It was relayed to Earth via ESA's Mars Express. The image, taken with the Rover's panoramic camera, was relayed to Earth by ESA's Mars Express together with other scientific data. Three separate frames, taken through red, green and blue filters, were combined to produce this colour image. NASA/JPL/Cornell

This false-colour image of the interior of 'Endurance Crater' on Mars was collected on 4 August 2004 by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. It was relayed to Earth via ESA's Mars Express. The image, taken with the Rover's panoramic camera, was relayed to Earth by ESA's Mars Express together with other scientific data. Three separate frames, taken through red, green and blue filters, were combined to produce this colour image. NASA/JPL/Cornell

Its landing site is located in the Meridiani Planum, an area of interest due to concentrations of the mineral Hematite, which on Earth is often formed in the presence of water.

With the possibility of water-formed minerals located here, it is not surprising that this is an area also investigated by our mineralogical Spectrometer OMEGA and our high resolution camera HRSC.

As with Phoenix, its sister rover Spirit and, currently, Curiosity, Mars Express has performed communication activities with Opportunity over the years, including the relay of the image above from the surface back to Earth.

As usual, the full set of this morning's images is available in Flickr.

 

Mars seen yesterday

Today's post contributed by Mars Express operations engineer Simon Wood – Ed.

Here in our latest Mars Webcam images taken yesterday, 4 June, we have not only captured more shots of the northern polar cap and what seems to be further dust/cloud formations around the pole, we have also snapped some of the biggest geological features on the planet.

Mars seen by VMC on 4 June 21014. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Mars seen by VMC - with annotations - on 4 June 21014. Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

In this image, we have all three volcanoes that make up the Tharsis mountains.

These three volcanoes dwarf anything found on Earth, ranging from 14 to 18 km in height. To put this into perspective, the tallest volcano on Earth is Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which only reaches 9 km above the ocean floor.

However, the Tharsis mountains are themselves dwarfed by the largest volcano on the Red Planet (and indeed in the solar system), Olympus Mons, which has an approximate height of a staggering 25 km!

The favourable lighting conditions in yesterday's observation enabled the entire base of the volcano to be visible and if you look closely you can even make out the crater. Olympus Mons covers an area of around 300 000 square kms, which to give some indication of the scale, would cover most of France.

We also just see the edge of the 'Grand Canyon of Mars' the Valles Marineris running along the limb of the planet (hopefully we'll have more on that in a forthcoming observation).

And here's a very cool Valles Marineris fly-through video:

One further item we've tagged in our image is the landing site of NASA's Phoenix spacecraft, the first spacecraft to send back science data from the Martian poles.

NASA Phoenix on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

NASA Phoenix on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

In May 2008, Mars Express provided communication relay support to Phoenix using MELACOM, our UHF radio, recording its radio signal during the entry, descent and landing phase (just as we would later do for Curiosity in 2012).

Some further relay tests were performed once it was successfully on the surface, with our last contact completed on 31 May 2008.

As usual all the images are available on the VMC flickr account: http://www.flickr.com/photos/esa_marswebcam/

Fabulous views of a snowy Red Planet

Recently, VMC has been busy looking out into the Solar System – imaging Phobos and Jupiter. But yesterday, the Mars Webcam returned to its nominal target. Mars.

In these latest images, we were at an altitude of around 9800 km above the planet, looking down on the northern pole.

Mars seen at 01:53:24 UTC on 16 May 2014. Credit: ESA

Mars seen at 01:53:24 UTC on 16 May 2014. Credit: ESA

Here, in one of the images we got back this morning, you can see we've captured not only a great shot of the polar cap but also (in the bottom of the image) we have Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, as well as what might to be cloud formations in the top right.

The full 28 image set (complete with what may be further cloud formations close to the pole) is available on our Flickr channel. The change in brightness from image to image is simply due to the the three different exposure settings that were used.

We have more VMC observations scheduled over the next few months and we'll post updates here on the blog and Flickr as we get them.

Our webcam views the Universe

A couple weeks, ago we ran an additional test of our long exposure settings on VMC. This time, we we upped the image exposure to 30 seconds.

A 30-second exposure using VMC to look up - Jupiter, Castor and Pollux are all tagged. Date-time stamp: 2014 DOY 095 18:49:26 UTC Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

A 30-second exposure using VMC to look up - Jupiter, Castor and Pollux are all tagged. Date-time stamp: 2014 DOY 095 18:49:26 UTC Credit: ESA/Mars Express/VMC

Just like with our Phobos images, its best to have a target to look at and for this test we used Jupiter.

We found that, not only was Jupiter visible on just a 2-second exposure, but on the longer ones Jupiter was also visible together with the two twins of Gemini, Pollux and Castor.

So in this set we have our first image of a planet other than Mars and also our first confirmed imaging of stars!

The full image set along with all our other VMC images are in our Flickr channel.