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

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.