Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mars Express Mission Extended Until the End of 2018

Artist’s impression of Mars Express set against a 35 km-wide crater in the Vastitas Borealis region of Mars at approximately 70.5°N / 103°E. The crater contains a permanent patch of water-ice that likely sits upon a dune field – some of the dunes are exposed towards the top left in this image. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum

It follows an elliptical orbit around Mars, undisturbed, almost lonely – the orbiter Mars Express. For 11 years now – to be precise since Christmas Eve 2003 – the first and, for some time now, European Space Agency (ESA) longest-serving interplanetary mission has been travelling around our planetary neighbour. ESA recently extended the mission by two years, until 2018. Over 90 percent of the Martian surface has been recorded since 2004 – roughly two thirds in the highest possible resolution.

Mars Express hosts seven scientific instruments. HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera, OMEGA (Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer) and MARSIS (Sub-surface Sounding Radar Altimeter) are used to image and study the surface and subsurface. For atmospheric and plasma studies there is PFS (Planetary Fourier Spectrometer), SPICAM (Ultraviolet and Infrared Atmospheric Spectrometer) and ASPERA (Energetic Neutral Atoms Analyser). OMEGA is also used to the study the atmosphere, and plasma is also studied with MARSIS. A radio link to convey data between the spacecraft and Earth is provided by MaRS, the Mars Radio Science Experiment, and used to study the gravity of Mars, the atmosphere and ionosphere, surface roughness and solar corona.

HRSC, developed by German Aerospace Center (DLR) and built in collaboration with German industry partners, delivers three-dimensional data to help provide answers to scientific questions. Additionally, the experiment seeks to produce the first global, topographical image map of Mars. The nine HRSC channels (one nadir channel pointing straight down on the surface of Mars, also four colour and four stereo channels) produce image resolutions of up to 10 metres per pixel, depending on the distance to the planet's surface. So far, the HRSC has been on active duty throughout 4165 orbits, recording the surface of Mars across a visual field extending for 50 by 200 kilometres.

At present, four orbiters circle Mars: besides Mars Express, we find NASA' s atmospheric research satellite MAVEN (in orbit since September 2014), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2006) and the Mission 2001 Mars Odyssey, the 'Methuselah' among the Mars spacecraft. Then there is the Mars Science Laboratory, fitted to Rover Curiosity (busily exploring Gale Crater since 2012). But there is more. On the surface is the smaller NASA Rover Opportunity, which landed on the Red Planet just a few weeks after Mars Express arrived. It has also been operational for over 10 years, namely since January 2004 – clocking up over 40 kilometres of distance travelled, a new world record on a celestial body other than Earth itself. But it is Mars Express that holds the overall distance record around the Red Planet. In an elliptical orbit, with distances ranging between 240 and 11,000 kilometres from the planet's surface, it has travelled 400 million kilometres – and the spacecraft will fly its 13,936 orbit on Christmas Eve.


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