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

Mars Full Orbit Video 2.0: Kepler rocks the Red Planet

Just in time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Mars Express: a new and enhanced Full Orbit Video delivered by the VMC camera - the Mars Webcam!

The version below is a special 'MEX birthday preview' – we'll post a somewhat extended version late next week (along with a more detailed explanation on how this video was produced), to coincide with the next expected VMC image set arriving from Mars.

What's the 'Full Orbit video', you ask? Access the original FO video produced in 2010 for the full description.

Thanks to the Mars Express Science & Operations teams for generating a fabulous, unique-in-our-Solar-System view of the Red Planet.

Happy Birthday, Mars Express!

ESA’s Mars Express views Gale Crater

Quick update received on 11 March from Mars Express operations engineer Andy Johnstone - Ed.

We just made a very cool observation with VMC, that I've posted to the Flickr

On 7 March, we were scheduled to perform a MELACOM pass with NASA's MSL; this involves us passing over Gale Crater with our MELACOM UHF antenna pointed towards the rover.


NASA later chose not to use our pass, so we decided to use it to perform a VMC observation instead.

The images we took were then stitched together to form a short video where Gale Crater can be seen as the dark horseshoe shape midway up the left hand side of the screen. This offset is due to VMC being set at 19 degrees from MELACOM.

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



First data via Malargüe station: Mars as seen by VMC

Marking its inauguration, ESA’s Malargüe tracking station receives Mars Webcam image.

First data via Malargüe station: Mars as seen by VMC

An image of the enigmatic Red Planet acquired by ESA’s Mars Express on 15 December 2012 was downloaded via ESA’s new tracking station in Malargüe, Argentina, symbolising ‘first data’ and recognising formal inauguration.

Details on the station's inauguration via ESA web and ESA media.

Malargüe station mosaic

A mosaic depicting ESA's new 35m deep-space tracking station at Malargüe, Argentina, composed of several hundred low-resolution Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) images acquired by Mars Express.

Malargüe station mosaic

On 18 December 2012, the station downloaded a VMC image from Mars Express orbiting some 328 million kilometres from Earth to mark the station's formal inauguration and the symbolic transmission of 'first data'. The image was received at ESA's European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany, and processed by the Mars Express mission operations team.

Photo mosaic generated using AndreaMosaic, an excellent piece of software!

Meet ESA, the space agency for Europe

You, together with your 500 million fellow citizens from ESA's 20 European member nations, are the collective owners of one of the world's leading space agencies. The European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organisation, a cooperative coming together of its Member States in their national interest and common good. This new video offers a quick introduction: Europe, meet ESA.

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!

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.

Mars Webcam image of the Red Planet


This is the first image of Mars to be acquired by the VMC camera on board Mars Express since the spacecraft was recovered from a major system fault in autumn 2011. This test image was acquired on 6 May 2012 at 00:45:28 UT. The VMC is now being recommissioned and tested, and is expected to be back in routine service by mid-2012.

Mars Webcam image of the Red Planet