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:

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.

Mars webcam spots Phobos

It’s been quiet on the VMC front over the last few months, but the good news is that our next VMC observation is scheduled for mid-May. However, don't think we haven't been busy behind the scenes in the meantime!

celestia_VMC_FRAME_MODE_TEST_2013-269In the summer of 2013, with the prospect of comets ISON and Siding Spring passing by Mars over the next 12 months, we wanted to have the ability to image them with VMC (if we got the opportunity). VMC has two operating modes: line mode and frame mode; the main difference between these is the image exposure times that can be set.

Line mode gives a maximum exposure of 200 millisseconds, and frame mode ranges from 200 milliseconds up to 95 seconds. The original on-board control procedure (i.e software commands) that operates VMC was only able to use line mode. This was a deliberate decision when the procedure was created to keep it as simple as possible, and 200ms is more than adequate for taking pictures of a well-illuminated Martian surface.

However, attempting to capture something as faint as a comet with a 200ms exposure on a 640x480 camera with no fancy optics was clearly going to be impossible. Thus the team decided this would be a good opportunity to perform a software upgrade that would enable us to operate VMC in both modes. Following a redesign of the algorithm, recoding and a period of validation against the spacecraft simulator, the upgraded procedure was uploaded to Mars Express. Once on board, the final step was to use it operationally.

A set of test images would be have to be taken and for this we needed a suitable target. The target had to be something bright enough that we stood a chance of imaging it but faint enough that we would likely be unable to see it on a short exposure. This was tricky given the limited number of test opportunities we had, but to our surprise and delight we discovered that Mars moon Phobos would pass through our field of view during the last of the slots we had identified .

Given that the last time long exposures were used on VMC was in 2007 (then just as a test to check it still worked) we had little information to go on regarding what exposure settings to use. The choice was further complicated by only having enough time to take 3 images.

In the end we decided on a large spread with 13-second, 6-second and 2-second exposures, as these would give us a good chance of capturing Phobos whilst also allowing us to assess the performance of the camera.

It was a tense wait to get the images back and see if all our work had paid off. Turned out we needn't have worried: not only had the upgraded software worked perfectly, but VMC had taken its first direct images of Phobos! We were absolutely thrilled with the results.

(13 seconds) 13-269_04.49.06_VMC_Img_No_2 (6 seconds) 13-269_04.50.01_VMC_Img_No_3

(2 seconds) 13-269_04.50.51_VMC_Img_No_4We estimate that we were approximately 8000 km away from Phobos when the images were taken (the increase in size/brightness is due to the different exposure times used). The 13-second and the 6-second images are a little over exposed (the glow in the bottom of the images is the light from the day side of Mars). In the final image (a 2-second exposure)  it is possible to get some indication of the overall shape of the Martian moon. Putting all images together in an animation, Phobos can be seen moving across the field of view.

phobosUnfortunately, our follow up observation of ISON did not go as well as we'd hoped. In the end, it was not as bright as originally expected and simply too faint to detect even with longer exposure times. All was not lost though, as we were left with these great shots of Phobos and new and proven imaging opportunities for VMC!

– MEX Team

We are, once again, back: Mars Express VMC resumes raw data posting

With not too much fanfare, December saw the Mars Express mission operations team at ESOC bringing the VMC back online, again. You'll recall that VMC went offline in late 2011 when Mars Express suffered problems with the mass memory storage. The spacecraft and instruments were fully back in routine operation by January 2012, meaning that the team could then devote some 'time-available' time to recommissioning VMC. In addition to getting the camera itself running (marked by the first symbolic data transmission of a VMC image via Malargüe station), we also set up a new blog channel and a dedicated Flickr page to host the images (and the Twitter account – @esamarswebcam – is still running).

Over at the Planetary Society blog, Emily Lakdawalla posted an update explaining the return of the VMC and including comments from Daniel Lakey, one of our MEX engineers looking after VMC. There's little improving on her excellent report, so with no further ado, please (a) take a look at her gorgeous collage '56 views of Mars from the Mars Webcam in 2012' reproduced below, and (b) head over to her blog and read her update in full.

56 views of Mars from the Mars Webcam in 2012 Credit: E. Lakdawalla

These 56 views of Mars were taken between May 6 and December 15, 2012. The cadence was uneven -- some images are separated by only a day, others by as much as a month. Credit: E. Lakdawalla

Following the first downlink over Malargüe tonight, we will consider the Flickr page to be open for business. Unfortunately, due to the upcoming solar conjunction and associated low bit-rate season, we're unlikely to get any downlink slots for VMC for a few months, but once the Mars Webcam is taking pictures again, the images will be published for the world to see within seconds of them being received on Earth. The low priority of VMC images means that their downlink to Earth can be some time after the observation.

-- Daniel Lakey, Mars Express, 18 Dec 2012



Astronaut-eye view of Mars from orbit: A unique video tour of the Red Planet

Our famous full-orbit video is now available in YouTube.

The original 2010 description:

The Mars Express VMC team here at ESOC are delighted to publish today's special treat: a movie carefully compiled from 600 VMC images snapped during a single, complete 7-hour orbit on 27 May 2010. This video shows what future astronauts would likely see from their cockpit window: Mars turning below them as they sweep in orbit around the Red Planet, our beautiful planetary neighbour!

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