An elegant solution – update in ESA web

Some nice news today for VMC fans: the teams at ESOC are getting closer to restoring the VMC back to operation. Imaging stopped, of course, with last autumn's anomaly, the solution of which has kept everyone in the MEX family fully occupied for several months. VMC, being last priority, was not worked on. But we're hopeful that we'll get a solution soon, and we'll post news here as soon as we hear anything.

References to our very own VMC camera activities highlighted - and note very nice comments on teamwork! Click here to read the full report.

While full science operations have now been resumed, a number of tasks remain to be completed. Most important among these is the implementation of an OBCP scheduler. This will enable the spacecraft to operate autonomously for up to a week, compared to the few days that are possible with the current FAST system. Work is also in hand to resume operation of the Visual Monitoring Camera.

Enormous team effort

Completely redesigning the way in which Mars Express is controlled has involved an enormous amount of work for the mission control team at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), assisted by their counterparts at the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), PI-teams, other ESA experts and partners in industry. Everyone involved with the mission is extremely grateful for their hard work.

Although the 'Express' in Mars Express highlights that the mission was developed in a short time and with a relatively modest budget, the ability to resume full operations after a very serious failure shows that the resulting design is both robust and flexible.

Mars Express has now been restored to full operational capability and its potential mission lifetime remains unchanged.

Support to the CO2 Cloud Observations by Mars Express with the VMC Visual Monitoring Camera

This paper discusses the possibilities for using the non-scientific Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) to contribute to this scientific objective of the Mars Express mission, complementing and supporting the data obtained from the scientific payload. The contribution of VMC is that it can image the planet with a large field of view, providing the context for the other experiments which operate at lower altitudes, close to the pericenter. The VMC data would also allow providing useful information such as cloud altitude (thanks to the shadow) morphology, relative reflectivity and dynamics. These are important parameters in the characterization of the CO2 cloud population.

Mars Express flying through the blackout – Solar Conjunction 2011

You might have noticed that VMC – the Mars Webcam – has been quiet recently. Don't worry: it's all expected – it's just further proof of the challenges and excitement of planetary spaceflight!

Today, Mars is at the worst point of a period known as 'solar conjunction', which means that Mars is on the exact opposite side of the Sun from Earth. Seen from the Earth at around 16:00 today, Mars appears only 0.7658 degrees from the Sun – less than the width of your finger held at arm's length!

This results in major disturbances in our communications from Earth to Mars Express and back; as a result the spacecraft has been put into an autonomous operations mode, with all activities on hold until we come out the other side.

The video above shows the Sun from the start of this year until today – with the streamer-like tendrils of its atmosphere, the corona. Coming in from the left of the video is a bright speck – Mars! Invisible here is the tiny dot of Mars Express orbiting the red planet. Our problem communicating with Mars Express comes from the fact that the radio beam from the spacecraft has to pass through this atmosphere, getting distorted on the way.

On top of that, our dish antennas on Earth have problems picking out the weak signal from Mars Express from the 'noise' of the Sun. All of this makes this period, about a month long, especially challenging for communications with all Mars missions.

To keep the spacecraft safe, we have to give it enough information for it to look after itself for the month when we are passing behind the Sun. There's simply not enough memory on the spacecraft to also include instructions on how to carry out its normal activities (including VMC imaging!) – all the space is used up with our commands on how to look after itself for a month alone, out of contact with Earth!

The video above was produced using the excellent JHelioViewer tool, developed with funding from ESA and NASA.

It shows in blue and red the view from the LASCO instrument on the ESA/NASA SOHO solar observatory mission. This instrument puts a disc in front of the Sun to block the direct light, and what can be seen is the corona, and in this case, Mars passing behind it. In the centre are images from the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory AIA instrument, showing the blazing Sun in the middle of our solar system.  – Thomas

Update: Peter Wellmann creates three views of Mars!

We would like to make a correction on our last blog update from Wednesday; Peter Wellmann had in fact submitted three versions of Mars' North Polar Regions. The corrected versions are all below. To read more about how Peter did his processing, check out the footnotes at the bottom of the page (after the jump..). Enjoy! And thanks, Peter for these impressive results. -- Daniel

The first picture shows almost all of the North Pole, surrounded in a dense cloudy haze. Craters Korolev and Alba Mons have been located easily.

Peter wrote:  “This very interesting VMC-material shows the almost complete North Polar Region and its surrounding area covered with clouds and haze. Identifying the surface details is impossible. Only Korolev crater and Alba Mons could be found. The stunning details below Alba Mons could be high reaching and dense clouds with their shadows. These gigantic clouds extend roughly over 150km. Sometimes sand storms cover the whole planet with dust, but never before have I seen Mars with such a large cloudy and hazy area. The surface structure is clearly visible only in small areas around Alba Mons, even the North Polar Cap is not detected safely, even though the pole is situated right on the terminator. The clouds show an interesting spiral structure, probably induced by coriolis force acting on air streaming out of a high pressure area on the northern hemisphere of a left spinning planet. Although there is little sharp detail in the raw-material I decided to give it a try.”

The second edit shows a similar situation as the first picture, the only difference being that they are on different sides of the hemisphere. This picture shows the complete polar region and the craters Acidalia Planitia, Lyot and Lomonosov could be clearly detected. The entire pole is covered with nicely structured clouds and haze.

Peter wrote: “This very interesting VMC-picture should be seen as supplement to my previous submitted image 2010/11/13. It shows the part of the polar region not visible on the 2010/11/13 image. Almost the entire North Pole and surrounding area is covered with nicely structured clouds and haze. Identifying surface details is not easily accomplished. Only Acidalia Planitia is partly free of clouds, and Lomonosov crater can be easily detected. On a second look the large crater Lyot is seen full size inside a semicircle of clouds. Some other structures are easily detected by comparing with the Celestia image, but we do not know their names. Surface structure is clearly visible only in small areas, even the north polar cap is not detected safely, although the pole is situated right below the terminator. The clouds show an interesting spiral structure, in a large stripe to the left very fine structure is visible. Although there is little sharp detail in the raw-material I decided to give it a try.”

The final image is of the complete North Pole covered in a nicely structured haze. The two pictures of Mars were taken about 4 days apart. Some landmarks were identified under the cloud haze.

Peter wrote: “This picture combines two VMC-operations; the first took place on 2010/11/23, the second only four days later on 2010/11/27. Both operations meet a time with strong cloud and haze-activity on the northern part of Mars. By comparing these images, my idea was to show the rapid change in cloud-structure. Due to the hidden surface it is not easy to identify landmarks, but I was able to locate some prominent craters for better orientation comparing the two images.

Processing colour from the original raw-frames by using the supplied flat-field, the atmospheric structures come out gray/white and not yellow/brown, so I assume they mainly are clouds and haze, not sandstorms. It is amazing how different these structures look, in some areas they look rather smooth, and in other areas they show very fine details. There also seems to be a difference between dawn and dusk, just compare the left (dusk) and right (dawn) terminator in the region of the “horn”. Also it seems that surface conditions affect cloud structure above. Processing these pictures was not easy and time consuming, but looking at the result I think time was not wasted. I do like this picture.”

Tech details

1 Our pictures taken 2010/11/13 were used:

The supplied dark frame “vmc_flat.raw” was used to extract png-files form the raw-material. Then we sharpened and stacked Pictures No 19/21 and 20/22 in order to reduce noise. The remaining noise was reduced further by utilizing Neat Image software. After cutting out the overexposed part of the stack 19/21 it was combined with the stack 20/22. The colour saturation was adjusted and the background was cleaned. Finally for better viewing the result was resized to 125%. For detailed information on processing see our work done with the astronomy group of Gymnasium Vaterstetten.
2 our pictures taken 2010/11/27 were used:


The supplied dark frame “vmc_flat.raw” was used to extract png-files form the raw-material. Then we sharpened and stacked Pictures No 19/21 and 20/22 in order to reduce noise. The remaining noise was reduced further by utilizing Neat Image software. After cutting out the overexposed part of the stack 19/21 it was combined with the stack 20/22. The colour saturation was adjusted and the background was cleaned. Finally for better viewing the result was resized to 125%. For detailed information on processing see our work done with the astronomy group of Gymnasium Vaterstetten.

3 For picture 2010/11/23 these pictures were used:


For picture 2010/11/27 these pictures were used:


Processing is sometimes not easy, and quite a bit of practice is helpful. Everybody may use his favourite software and try out what he can do with it. We use Photoshop, Giotto “Mexican Hat” for sharpening and Neat Image for noise reduction. Information on processing is found in the Gymnasium Vaterstetten report and on their astronomy homepage. Here I want to show the single steps I used processing the actual picture:

  •   Choose 2/2 high/low exposed frames, artefacts not same position
  •   Extract files by ”vmc2rgb.exe” utilizing flat-field “vmc_flat.raw”
  •   Sharpen all four pictures, a bit of noise is no problem
  •   Clean out known artefacts, do not alter same region in all frames
  •   Align carefully(!) and stack frames with same exposure time
  •   Place terminator-region from high exposed stack into low exposed stack
  •   Clean background using feathered selections
  •   Resize 125% and reduce noise with professional filter
  •   Adjust colour saturation carefully and moderately
  •   Split to luminance and colour, and reduce noise in colour only
  •   Make nice “fine tuning” but do not destroy original content

Remarks: We do not use the library-png because we want to see the colour of the raw-material and adjust it so that for example white clouds stay something ear white. We sharpen every single picture, doing this a bit of noise is no roblem because later two frames are stacked, and a professional noise filter s applied. Artefacts must be cleaned from each picture before stacking; hoosing pictures with artefacts not in the same place will preserves some riginal information for all parts. We align two frames in order to reduce oise, for this usually one image must be rotated a bit. We stack separately for igh and low exposure. Fitting the high exposure section to the low exposure icture is done by feathered selection and must be tried out very carefully.

Cleaning the background is done by a 2px feathered circle-selection very lose to the rim of Mars; then a 15-20px feathered oval selection is used at he terminator. This must be done carefully not to alter the original picture ore than necessary. If adjustment of colour saturation results in a bad colour oise, this may be reduced by applying a noise filter to the colour information nly (definitely not affecting the luminance). For this we separate luminance nd colour by Photoshop. At the end some 'fine-tuning' may be favourable for example feathered selection on a cloud patch to enhance white colour and o on). We do this carefully and moderately in order to preserve the original content of the picture.


Public Submission – Glowing North Pole by Mike Malaska









Regular VMC contributor Mike Malaska has submitted another outstanding image edit for the Mars Webcam blog, shown above. His work is based on an image of the North Pole of Mars from a VMC observation on the 30th September. The polar cap of the planet can just be seen in the middle of this image, with low sunlight glinting off the patches of snow and ice surrounding it. As Earth heads into Northern hemisphere autumn, Mars is also in Northern autumn at the moment and this view captures beautifully the impression of low sunlight in the Northern parts of Mars, with ice and snow signalling the coming winter.

Mike wrote the following to us about his work on this image:

"The main reason I initially got excited about this image was (1) North Pole of Mars and (2) taken at apoapsis (maximum height above Mars, about 10,000 km) of the Mars Express orbit. I was hoping for several pictures with very little change that could be used to make a 'super-resolution' image. Unfortunately, there was a 1-pixel-per-image rotation counter-clockwise (in this orientation) of the surface that messed up my plans.

This image was created by making an average of several images: Nos. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16, then Gaussian blurring this by 1 pixel to make a smooth color background. Next, Image No. 12 was used as a luminosity layer. It was also used as a HiPass layer to enhance subtle details. Finally it was blended with some of the original Image No. 12. Contrast enhancement and rotation (to put the North Pole at the top) and cropping gave the final image."

As always, excellent work Mike — and thank you for the submission and for showing us the beauty of Mars.

We'd love to see what other visitors can make of VMC images, too — just check out the Help us with VMC link at right to get started! -- Thomas





Mars Webcam presentation at IAC Prague 2010

Our colleague Thomas Ormston, who leads VMC activities for the Mars Express team here at ESOC, recently presented a paper at the 61st International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Prague, Czech Republic.

The paper, "An Ordinary Camera In An Extraordinary Location: Outreach With The Mars Webcam," covered the history of the VMC project and provided details on camera operations and our results to date in publishing results to this blog. It also described the outreach successes of the project, highlighted some of the contributions from the Mars Webcam community, explained opportunities to use and work with the Mars Webcam and plans for future camera activities.

The paper was the product of a joint effort and made use of input from the entire Mars Express team (thanks guys!) – it's an excellent review of VMC activities to date. You can click on 'Full story' below.

We'd like to thank everyone who attended Thomas' presentation at IAC and, in particular, we'd like to give a big shout out to Beth Beck, who posted the following note in her blog:

"My fav presentation was European Space Agency's Mars WebCam project. You'll just have to check it out. The best example of 'participatory exploration' that I've seen. They turned an unused mission camera back on to take photos of Mars. They offer the data to the public to process. The Mars WebCam folks post the "processed" images back on their site. Quite wonderful. They've created an amazing, enthusiastic community of Mars-watchers, who participate in the mission voluntarily with hundreds of hours of processing time to their credit."


Thanks, Beth, for your kind words! – Daniel

Our IAC 2010 paper


VMC Gets Special Mention in Europlanet Outreach Award

The VMC team at ESOC were very happy to learn that they had been given a special mention from the Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement 2010. It is awarded to individuals or groups who have developed innovative practices in planetary science communication and whose efforts have significantly contributed to a wider public engagement with planetary science. The main award was won by Dr Jean Lilensten of the Laboratoire de Planétologie de Grenoblefor his long standing work magic of planetary aurora with school children and members of the public across Europe, using his ‘planeterrella’ experiment.

The VMC team are proud and excited to receive this terrific special mention from an organisation that lies at the heart of planetary science in Europe. The testimonies that go with the special mention reflect exactly what we hope to achieve with the Mars Webcam and it is gratifying to receive this recognition for the project.

Thomas Ormston (left), Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Engineer, Dr. Thierry Fouchet (middle), Outreach Coordinator for Europlanet, Dr Olivier Witasse, ESA's Project Scientist for Mars Express

The Mars Webcam project aims to bring the excitement and interest of planetary exploration direct to educational institutions and the public by making you our scientists and investigators. We often say VMC is "an ordinary camera in an extraordinary location," but the results submitted to our blog by you show just how extraordinary the results from the VMC can be, too.

The whole VMC team thanks the Europlanet Outreach Steering Committee for awarding us this special mention. We also would like to thank all those within ESA who have supported the project. Of course you - the visitors and contributors to the VMC blog - share this accolade with us, since it has been your support that makes the Mars Webcam a success!

A presentation on the VMC and the Mars Webcam Blog (including sincere thanks from the whole VMC team to the EPSC folks) was given at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome today. Here we took the chance to explain how much of a success VMC has been and how the participation of the general public in the exploration of Mars is something that helps bring the data from Mars alive.

Please do keep visiting the blog and submitting your interpretations of VMC images and help keep the project as dynamic and interesting as it has always been. More information is available at the “Help us with VMC” link on the right. -- Thomas

Haze in Valles Marineris by Peter Wellmann

We have an excellent submission to share with you as today's Friday treat: a poster project entitled 'Haze in Valles Marineris by Peter Wellmann'.

Peter has created a beautiful enhanced image and a poster highlighting atmospheric haze high above Valles Marineris; these are based on four VMC images acquired on 9 October 2008 (proving the point that archived data can have value years after it was collected) when Mars Express was orbiting about 7500 km above the surface.

Peter's first image shows a beautiful, long wispy streak of haze running over the entire Valles Marineris surface system - at more than 4000 km long, 200 km wide and 7 km deep, the Valles Marineris rift system is the largest-known canyon in the Solar System (and is much larger than North America's puny Grand Canyon). His poster includes many additional details of surface geography and clouds.

We were really impressed with the analysis that Peter did prior to starting image enhancement work - which was a challenge due to the considerable amount of movement by Mars Express during the 3.5-minute slot in which the four raw images were acquired. This work follows on Peter's earlier submission, North polar cap - posters by Peter Wellmann, posted on 18 August.

Thanks, Peter, for an excellent submission! (Click on 'Full story' to access more details and the full-size versions of the images). -- Daniel Scuka

The original Mars Webcam images (Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 7) can be found in the 9.10.2008 set here.

First, here are Peter's two images (his explanatory text is below).



















Peter writes:

"The picture of Valles Marineris: About 7500 km out from Mars, Mars Express VMC shot a sequence of pictures showing interesting details. The whole system of Valles Marineris is drowned in a white haze. The large crater to the right seems to be Lowell crater, hiding its interesting inner ring-feature below haze. Originating from Arsia Mons a large cloud is visible that is getting lost in the dark of the terminator.

Viewing the raw-material from 2008/10/09, we had the idea that the hazy patch seen at the terminator in the region of Arsia Mons could be some kind of reflection, but studying the other frames of the sequence showed that this rather is a true structure on Mars. Reaching into the dark of the terminator, it must be high above the ground - probably a large cloud originating near Arsia Mons.

For processing it was decided to use four raw frames to reduce noise, taking into account that this would not deliver a perfect result due to the considerable movement of Mars Express during the 3.5 minutes slot the pictures were taken.

•      08-283_04.27.15_VMC_Img_No_3 ('red' image)
•      08-283_04.28.08_VMC_Img_No_4 ('blue' image)
•      08-283_04.29.01_VMC_Img_No_5 ('blue' image)
•      08-283_04.30.47_VMC_Img_No_7 ('red' image)

Using vmc_flat.raw flatfield and vmc2rgb.exe tools, the pictures were converted from .raw to .png files. The VMC flatfield works fine - at the time being there is only one larger defect that is not corrected sufficiently. After resizing to 150 percent, the two red and blue pictures were stacked. After cutting out the overexposed part with a feathered selection, the blue result was stacked to the red result with 60% transparency. As expected, the rapid movement of Mars Express became a problem, we could not find a perfect fit for the stacked frames. Having no special (and expensive) software for this purpose, we adjusted this sufficiently for a medium quality result only. The final picture was sharpened with a Mexican Hat filter, then high frequency noise was reduced with the software Neat Image, sacrificing some sharpness again.

Finally, Photoshop was used to give the picture the 'final touch" by carefully removing known artifacts of VMC, adjusting levels and colour saturation and cleaning the dark background of the picture. When adjusting levels and colour, a mask for white with a tolerance of 60 and feathered edges of 3 pixels was used to emphasize the hazy area of Valles Marineris."

Thanks Peter!

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