School report: Mars Webcam Project by Gymnasium Vaterstetten


We are delighted today to bring you a detailed post on the excellent Mars Webcam project submitted by the Astronomy Group at the Humboldt Gymnasium (high school) in Vaterstetten, near Munich, Germany. The project began in March 2010, when the school's Astronomy Group, led by teacher Markus Schmidtner, set forth the following project goal:

The astronomy group of the grammar school in Vaterstetten, Germany, was happy to get the opportunity to adopt a VMC-Operation. This operation took place on 23rd of March 21 from 0:28 a.m. to 1:08 a.m. At this moment the satellite was situated near the apocenter of the orbit, the highest altitude above the planet. The aim was to process the raw - images supplied by ESA and then compare the images taken with the Visual-Monitoring-Camera (VMC) with our own telescope images and to generate a stereo image with the data of the VMC.

Our post today includes several of the excellent images processed and developed by the school team as well as links to their full PDF & web report.

"Speaking on behalf of the entire Mars Express Flight Control Team, I am very impressed with the work done by the teachers and students at the Humboldt Gymnasium. Their work, analysis and results prove the value both educational and scientific of even 'low-tech' images delivered from deep space. Congratulations on a project well done and we wish you continued success in your studies."

-- ESA's Michel Denis, Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Manager, ESA/ESO

All of us here at the Mars Webcam blog were tremendously impressed with the work done by the students. The goal was to analyse VMC images and determine how these compare in resolution to images obtained from the ground and, interestingly, from the joint ESA-NASA Hubble Space Telescope.

The student team was able to demonstrate that the VMC camera, viewing Mars from 10 000 km, provides images having similar resolution to those provided by the Hubble telescope viewing Mars at 88 million km. They also created an excellent stereo image of Mars.

Congratulations and thanks for an excellent report!

"When Mars Express leaves apocenter and approaches the Planet, resolution of VMC images will increase so much that even the powerful Hubble Telescope has no chance - this shows drastically the importance of missions like Mars Express. If you want to find out, you must go there..."

-- Humboldt Gymnasium VMC Project Report

Scroll down to access several sets of content submitted by the students at Humboldt Gymnasium.

1. Image gallery - student processed images

A gallery of images processed and analysed by the students. These are based on the original raw VMC image set acquired 21 March 2010.

Of these, the two below are especially well done:

2. Project report - web version (condensed)
Access the school's online project report via The report includes images and text detailing their goals, processes and learnings during the project.











Recent Mars Webcam image sets: Why are some corrupted?

If you look closely at the image set captured on 8 August, you might notice that images 7-9 are corrupted and images 10-12 are missing completely. Nothing to worry about - VMC is performing perfectly! What you're seeing is, in fact, the affect our own planet can have on our exploration of Mars!

These images were sent back from Mars early in the afternoon of 10 August and received via ESA's 35m deep space station in Cebreros, near Madrid. At that time, Cebreros was experiencing severe, heavy rain which caused problems with the reception of the Mars Express signal containing the VMC images - just as you may have noticed degradation on your satellite television at home during a storm.

So nothing to worry about, but a nice reminder that while we can operate a spacecraft flying around another planet, we are still at the mercy of mother nature! -- Thomas

Animation & comparison: two excellent creations based on Mars Webcam images

Long-time VMC supporter Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society has created an excellent animation from the image set acquired 8 August by Mars Express as it soared over the Red Planet's northern ice cap.

Emily writes:

 Yesterday, I found a really nice set that I just had to animate, taken from a relatively low altitude over the picturesque swirls of Mars' north polar cap, which is brightly lit now by round-the-clock summer sun. This animation is composed of 23 photos taken by the 'Mars Webcam' aboard Mars Express, spanning a little more than half an hour on August 9, 2010. During the animation, Mars Express recedes from an altitude of about 4100 kilometers to about 7000 kilometers above the planet. The twisted canyons of Mars' north polar cap occupy the center of the view. Click here for a version at the camera's full resolution.

We were delighted to see such a quick and well-done response to this image set - good work and thanks, Emily!

Another long-time friend of the VMC, Mike Malaska, also posted a very nice comparison between two VMC images taken some six weeks apart, on 27 May and 8 August.

Mike wrote:

"The north pole is at center in the two images, the 300 longitude line is approximately at top. Large differences in ice cover can be seen near Chasma Boreale (the deep chasm at lower center). The triangle shaped region at upper right is Olympia Mensae. Interestingly, while the August 8th image generally seems to have more ice overall, the region just poleward of Olympia Undae (which is the darker region poleward of Olympia Mensae) seems less ice covered than in the May 27th image."

Well done, Mike - and thanks to you also!

With two strong creations based on the excellent 8 August VMC image set, we thought it would be interesting to provide some background info on how the Mars Webcam acquired these frosty polar pictures. Hannes Griebel, Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Engineer and multiple past contributor to our VMC Blog, works on the mission planning system, and he provided this description.

Mars Express primary scientific observations are always prioritised ahead of VMC operations. This usually leaves only small VMC picture-taking opportunities at the maximum distance from Mars (apocentre), since conditions at this point in the the spacecraft's orbit are often not usable for science operations (due to the large distance to the planet and firings from the Mars Express thrusters). Occasionally, an observation slot is available at a lower altitude, allowing VMC to operate much closer to the planet and take spectacular, and for such a simple device, quite detailed, images - such as the recent polar images from 8 August. When such a slot occurs, the Mars Express Flight Control Team at ESOC do all they can to make the most of the opportunity, while still maintaining the primary science operations required by the Mars Express mission.

Images from any VMC observation, routine or special, are uploaded and made available via the VMC Blog immediately after they are received on the ground from Mars Express. However, their real potential is often revealed only after members of the public turn them into stunning compositions and animations - which we are delighted to receive and share via posting in the VMC Blog from here at ESOC! If you want to submit any work based on raw VMC image sets - be it processed images, animations, a poem, an artistic interpretation, an analysis of the image content or (more or less) anything else - then please feel free to contact us (you can find more details under Help us with VMC in the links to the right of this page).

Thanks, Hannes, for this background report - and from all of us on the VMC team, thanks to everyone who has submitted results to the VMC Blog.

Keep up the great work!

-- Daniel Scuka