VMC grows up

The news is out: our little VMC webcam on board Mars Express has achieved adulthood, of sorts! In a web article on 25 May, we announced that the VMC camera is being adopted as a professional science instrument.

Mars seen in May 2016 in three different views. Full details via http://www.esa.int/marstriptych2016 Credit: D. O'Donnell - ESA/Mars Express/VMC CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO - ESA/NASA/Hubble

Mars seen in May 2016 in three different views. Full details via http://www.esa.int/marstriptych2016 Credit: D. O'Donnell - ESA/Mars Express/VMC CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO - ESA/NASA/Hubble

The article reads, in part:

This spring, ESA began working with the Planetary Sciences Group of the University of the Basque Country, Spain, for an initial two years to develop software and conduct studies of images, effectively promoting the humble camera to the level of professional science instrument.

“The analysis will help us understand the global martian context of data acquired from other instruments, provide data on clouds, dust and atmospheric structures and enable surface features to be accurately characterised, for example, by tracking variations in the Mars polar ice cap,” says Agustín Sánchez-Lavega, heading the group.

ESA's Mars Express Project Scientist Dmitri Titov is delighted that the camera is opening up a new range of investigations at Mars: “Cloud tracking and dust storm monitoring, for example, are significant topics in the planetary community, and it will allow us to extend Mars Express science ‘into the atmosphere’, filling a gap in the spacecraft’s science portfolio.

The good news is that the transition to a science instrument won't interfere with the ongoing delivery of VMC images for immediate public viewing and for continued use in outreach, education and citizen science. You remain more than welcome (highly encouraged, in fact!) to access the image sets and use them for your own analysis, processing and sharing (details on CC licensing here).

Working on VMC outreach, education and PR has been one of the most interesting and satisfying projects I've been involved with here at ESOC in recent years. I have thoroughly enjoyed being in touch with, and working with, a lot of enthusiastic folks – some within ESA, many external – all of whom have been motivated by the love of science, interest in Mars, support for education and working with an active community.

While I thoroughly enjoyed seeing (and sharing) the many VMC submissions that people on several continents sent it over the years, the most enjoyable activity for me was definitely the 2015 VMC Imaging Campaign aimed at schools, astronomy clubs, science centres and other youth groups.

The level of participation was fabulous (25 groups from the US and Europe) and the resulting work was really well done. It was a genuine pleasure to work with the MEX flight control team here to host a series of Google Hangouts, issue the challenge, receive the imaging requests and then actually conduct the dedicated observations. This might have been the first-ever allocation of multiple orbits of an interplanetary craft to schools and young folks! And it was also a pleasure to see that some groups chose to submit artistic work based on the resulting images, in addition to those who sent in more traditional science projects.

It was also a pleasure working with pro-, semi-pro- and amateur (but v. enthusiastic) planetary science nuts located all over the place!

One of the most active supporters of VMC since the beginning has been Emily Lakdawalla – herself a planetary scientist – who blogs over at the Planetary Society. Emily has done an excellent job over many years highlighting numerous ESA missions, and she was a keen 'early adopter' when the VMC images first became available in 2007/08. She promoted and shared VMC images, and designed and hosted online tutorials to help those interested in working with the images learn some of the techniques, and she inspired many others to get involved.

I asked Emily for a few comments, and she sent in this:

The VMC demonstrates the power of a simple camera for exciting the public about the adventure of space exploration. Its images are not large but they are the only ones arriving from any Mars spacecraft that show us Mars as a round planet in all its changing phases and seasons – a view out the porthole of an interplanetary ship. I'd like to see simple, small, wide-angle cameras on all spacecraft to provide context to tell the story of robotic space exploration.

It's appropriate, however, to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to VMC since its recommissioning in 2007. People have contributed time, software, knowledge, support to outreach activities, organisational efforts and enthusiasm – and so much more – helping make the VMC outreach effort a real success!

To everyone here, in alphabetical order, a huge thanks!

  • Stuart Atkinson
  • Johannes Bauer
  • Maria Bennett
  • Jean-Pierre Bibring
  • Michel Breitfellner
  • Marcello Cappelletti
  • Alejandro Cardesin
  • Michel Denis
  • Bill Dunford
  • Doug Ellison
  • Paolo Ferri
  • James Godfrey
  • Brigitte Gondet
  • Hannes Griebel
  • Andy Johnstone
  • Michael Khan
  • Rene Kloos
  • Emily Lakdawalla
  • Daniel Lakey
  • Jocelyne Landeau-Constantin
  • Luke Lucas
  • Stefan Luders
  • Mike Malaska
  • Thomas Ormston
  • Gordan Ugarkovic
  • Manfred Warhaut
  • Simon Wood

If I inadvertently left someone's name off the thanks list, DO let me know!!!!

Last but by no means least, I'd like to thank everyone who has ever downloaded, tinkered with, mashed up, colour-processed, artistically rendered, analysed, processed, shared or in any other way had total fun messing with VMC images. You guys are an inspiring community and it has been your enthusiasm that has made the VMC project a success.

If you're looking for a nice, historical overview of VMC activities with many updates from the folks who did a lot of the work, there's no better place than the VMC thread over at UnmannedSpaceFlight.

PS: As Emily pointed out in a separate email, a couple of our VMC community members have since gone on to great things: Both Mike Malaska and Bill Dunford have been absorbed by NASA/JPL!

Auto-posting temporarily off

Looking for the latest info on the VMC Schools Campaign?
Follow the Mars Express blog.

UPDATE 31 August: Auto-posting is back on!

As part of the VMC Schools Campaign, Mars Express is now using VMC to acquire over 2000 images of the Red planet; the first imaging orbits were yesterday, and the final runs tonight through until Wednesday morning.

In order to give priority to the 25 schools, youth clubs and organisation taking part in the VMC Schools Campaign, we have temporarily turned the auto-posting function OFF. This means that the VMC images acquired yesterday, today and tomorrow morning will not appear here in the blog or in the Flickr channel at this time.

We will release these as usual in the future, once the participants have had an opportunity to start working with their images.

CC licensing for all VMC images

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



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

Return of the Mars Webcam

Editor's note: Today's post contributed by Thomas Ormston and the Mars Express team at ESOC.

The smallest instrument on Mars Express -- VMC (Visual Monitoring Camera), the Mars Webcam -- is finally returning to service following the major anomaly that struck Mars Express at the end of summer 2011.

Mars Webcam image of the Red Planet

Mars as seen - once again - by VMC on 6 May 2012

Although our prime science campaign has been back to 100% of the level of operations from before the anomaly for some months now, we were still working hard on finalising our new operations concept and ensuring that we had safely and efficiently returned to operations. With much of that complete, we managed to focus on how to get VMC working again under the new ops concept and on 6 May we conducted the first test observation since the 2011 anomaly.

We are very proud and excited to have VMC back on the way to normal service and very happy to present the image from the first test observation.

Read on for more details about this image and the return to service of VMC.

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.

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