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

Image

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