This week marks the 10th anniversary since the launch of the European Space Agencies’ (ESA) Mars Express orbiter from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Russia on June 2, 2003 and a decade of ground breaking science discoveries at the Red Planet.
2003 was a great year for Mars exploration as it also saw the dual liftoffs of NASA’s now legendary rovers Spirit & Opportunity from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The immense quantity and quality of science data returned from Mars Express -simultaneously with Spirit and Opportunity – has completely transformed our understanding of the history and evolution of the Red Planet.
All three spacecraft have functioned far beyond their original design lifetime.
Earth’s exploration fleet of orbiters, landers and rovers have fed insights to each other that vastly multiplied the science output compared to working solo during thousands and thousands of bonus Sols at Mars.
Inside a central pit crater. Perspective view of a 50 km diameter crater in Thaumasia Planum. The image was made by combining data from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express with digital terrain models. The image was taken on 4 January 2013, during orbit 11467, and shows a close up view of the central ‘pit’ of this crater, which likely formed by a subsurface explosion as the heat from the impact event rapidly vapourised water or ice lying below the surface. Copyright ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum
Mars Express derived its name from an innovative new way of working in planetary space science that sped up the development time and cut costs in the complex interactive relationships between the industrial partners, space agencies and scientists.
Indeed the lessons learned from building and operating Mars Express spawned a sister ship, Venus Express that also still operates in Venusian orbit.
Mars Express (MEX) achieved orbit in December 2003.
MEX began science operations in early 2004 with an array of seven instruments designed to study all aspects of the Red Planet, including its atmosphere and climate, and the mineralogy and geology of the surface and subsurface with high resolution cameras, spectrometers and radar.
The mission has been granted 5 mission extensions that will carry it to at least 2014.
The mission has been wildly successful except for the piggybacked lander known as Beagle 2, which was British built.
The ambitious British lander was released from the mothership on December 19, 2003, six days before MEX braked into orbit around Mars. Unfortunately the Beagle 2 was never heard from again as it plummeted to the surface and likely crashed.
The high resolution camera (HRSC) has transmitted thousands of dramatic 3D images all over Mars ranging from immense volcanoes, steep-walled canyons, dry river valleys, ancient impact craters of all sizes and shapes and the ever-changing polar ice caps.
It carried the first ever radar sounder (MARSIS) to orbit another planet and has discovered vast caches of subsurface water ice.
MEX also played a significant role as a data relay satellite for transmissions during the landings of NASA’s Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover. It also occasionally relays measurements from Spirit & Opportunity to NASA.
Arima twins topography. This colour-coded overhead view is based on an ESA Mars Express High-Resolution Stereo Camera digital terrain model of the Thaumasia Planum region on Mars at approximately 17°S / 296°E. The image was taken during orbit 11467 on 4 January 2013. The colour coding reveals the relative depth of the craters, in particular the depths of their central pits, with the left-hand crater penetrating deeper than the right (Arima crater). Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum
Here is a list of the Top 10 Discoveries from Mars Express from 2003 to 2013:
#1. First detection of hydrated minerals in the form of phyllosilicates and hydrated sulfates – evidence of long periods of flowing liquid water from the OMEGA visible and infrared spectrometer provided confirmation that Mars was once much wetter than it is today and may have been favorable for life to evolve.
#2. Possible detection of methane in the atmosphere from the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) which could originate from biological or geological activity.
#3. Identification of recent glacial landforms via images from the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) are stem from viscous flow features composed of ice-rich material derived from adjacent highlands.
#4. Probing the polar regions. OMEGA and MARSIS determined that the south pole consists of a mixture frozen water ice and carbon dioxide. If all the polar ice melted the planet would be covered by an ocean 11 meters deep.
#5. Recent and episodic volcanism perhaps as recently as 2 million years ago. Mars has the largest volcanoes in the solar system . They are a major factor in the evolution of the martian surface, atmosphere and climate.
#6. Estimation of the current rate of atmospheric escape, helps researchers explain how Mars changed from a warm, wet place to the cold, dry place it is today.
#7. Discovery of localised aurora on Mars
#8. A new, meteoric layer in the martian ionosphere created by fast-moving cosmic dust which burns up as it hits the atmosphere.
#9. Unambiguous detection of carbon dioxide clouds. The freezing and vaporisation of CO2 is one of the main climatic cycles of Mars, and it controls the seasonal variations in surface air pressure.
#10. Unprecedented probing of the Martian moon Phobos – which could be a target for future landers and human missions.
The Mars-facing side of Phobos. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013