Mars Express Mission
Mars, our most Earth-like planetary neighbour, beckons. Its pristine and diverse surface, equal in area to Earth’s land surface, displays a long and fascinating history, punctuated by impact events, volcanism, tectonics, and aeolian, fluvial and glacial erosion. A century ago, astronomers believed they were witnessing the last attempts of a dying martian civilisation to cope with the devastating effects of climate change. The notion of an intelligently inhabited Mars was later dispelled, but the expectation that simple life forms could have survived persisted. Today, after sending robotic missions to Mars, our view of the planet retains some striking similarities to those earlier romantic conjectures. 1)
We know from orbiting spacecraft that Mars has undergone dramatic climatic and geologic changes. Water coursing over its surface in the distant past left dramatic evidence in deeply carved channels and fluvial networks. Yet today we find the planet is cold and dry. There is no evidence so far that life exists there now, but primitive life during Mars’ warmer, wetter past is a real possibility. So, mysteries remain: how did our Earth-like neighbour arrive at its present parched, cold and almost airless state? Did life evolve and then die out? Did it leave a fossil record? Last but not least, can the changes experienced by Mars teach us something about the dramatic changes being predicted for our own planet?
These and other questions have spurred scientists and engineers to meet the enormous challenge of sending missions to Mars. A Mars-bound spacecraft must survive journeys of more than 6 months, approach the planet from just the right angle and at the right speed to enter orbit, and then operate successfully to return valuable observations. Some missions have failed, but the successes have more than repaid the effort and risk. Our knowledge about Mars has grown dramatically with every successful visit. Four decades of space-based observations have produced more information and knowledge than earlier astronomers with Earth-bound telescopes could have imagined.
Mars Express is a space exploration mission of ESA (European Space Agency), Europe’s first mission to the Red Planet. Mars Express is so called because it was built more quickly than any other comparable planetary mission. Beagle 2 was named after the ship in which Charles Darwin sailed when formulating his ideas about evolution.
The Mars Express mission is dedicated to the orbital (and originally in-situ) study of the interior, subsurface, surface and atmosphere, and environment of the planet Mars. The scientific objectives of the Mars Express mission represent an attempt to fulfill in part the lost scientific goals of the Russian Mars 96 mission, complemented by exobiology research with Beagle 2. Mars exploration is crucial for a better understanding of the Earth from the perspective of comparative planetology. The mission's main objective is to search for subsurface water and deploy a lander onto the Martian surface.
It carries seven instruments and deployed a lander, Beagle 2. The lander was lost during its attempt to reach the planet’s surface but the orbiter continues its highly successful on-going global investigation of Mars and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos.
ESA provided the launcher, orbiter and operations, while the instruments were provided by scientific institutions through their own funding.
The Mars Express orbiter is the core of the mission, scientifically justified on its own merit by providing unprecedented global coverage of the planet, in particular of the surface, subsurface and atmosphere. Beagle 2 was selected through its innovative scientific goals and very challenging payload. The combination of orbiter and lander was expected to be a powerful tool to focus on two related issues: the current inventory of ice or liquid water in the martian crust, and possible traces of past or present biological activity on the planet. The broad scientific objectives of the orbiter are:
- global color and stereo high-resolution imaging with about 10 m resolution and imaging of selected areas at 2 m pix–1;
- global IR mineralogical mapping of the surface;
- radar sounding of the subsurface structure down to the permafrost;
- global atmospheric circulation and mapping of the atmospheric composition;
- interaction of the atmosphere with the surface and the interplanetary medium;
- radio science to infer critical information on the atmosphere, ionosphere, surface and interior.
The ultimate scientific objective of Beagle 2 was the detection of extinct and/or extant life on Mars, a more attainable goal being the establishment of the conditions at the landing site that were suitable for the emergence and evolution of life. In order to achieve this goal, Beagle 2 was designed to perform in situ geological, mineralogical and geochemical analysis of selected rocks and soils at the landing site. Furthermore, studies of the martian environment were planned via chemical analysis of the atmosphere, local geomorphological studies of the landing site and via the investigation of dynamic environmental processes.
Figure 1: Illustration of ESA's Mars Express spacecraft (image credit: ESA)
Mars Express is a pioneer - and not just because it is Europe's first mission to the Red Planet. It is also pioneering more economic ways of building space science missions at ESA. These new working methods have already proved effective and will be applied to future science missions in the agency’s long-term scientific program. 2)
ESA is spending just 150 million Euros (1996 prices) on Mars Express, which is about one third of the cost of previous similar missions. This sum covers for the spacecraft, the launch and the operations. Orbiter instruments and the Beagle 2 lander are provided separately. The mission was also built unusually quickly to meet its narrow launch window in June 2003.
Savings are being made by re-using existing hardware, adopting new project management practices, shortening the time from original concept to launch, and procuring the most cost-effective launcher available.
Mars Express is making maximum use of existing technology that is either 'off-the-shelf' or technology that has already been developed for Rosetta, ESA's mission to a comet. Items not – at least partly - in common with Rosetta constitute only about 35% of the spacecraft.
ESA awarded the main contract to Astrium Toulouse, France, the spacecraft prime contractor, that previously would have been done by the project team at ESTEC. In particular, Astrium is managing the technical interfaces between the spacecraft and science payload and between the spacecraft and launcher. This shift in responsibility is allowing industry to streamline procedures and ESA to reduce the size of its project team to half that of previous equivalent projects. Astrium is leading a consortium of 24 companies from 15 European countries and the US.
"This new scheme is best suited to Mars Express constraints. Industry is more responsible in terms of the interfaces, which means we can have a more efficient decision-making process," says Vincent Poinsignon, Mars Express Project Manager at Astrium.
The time from concept to awarding the design and development contract was cut from about five years to little more than one year. Astrium won the prime contract in March 1999 in competition with two other consortia. The design and development phase will take under four years, compared with up to six years for previous similar missions.
Mars Express is a 3-axis stabilized orbiter with a fixed high-gain antenna and body-mounted instruments, and is dedicated to the orbital and in situ study of the planet’s interior, subsurface, surface and atmosphere.
Table 1: Spacecraft mass and power budget 3)
Table 2: Spacecraft parameters
Figure 2: Mars Express in launch configuration at Baikonur (image credit: ESA)
Launch: The Mars Express satellite was launched on 2 June 2003 on a Soyuz-Fregat vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. 4)
Orbit: A HEO (Highly Elliptical Orbit) on Mars (quasi-polar orbit) with a periapsis of 330 km and an apoapsis of 10,530 km, period of 7hrs.
Mars Express was launched from the Fregat upper stage towards Mars with an absolute velocity of 116, 800 km/hr and a velocity relative to the Earth of 10,800 km/hr. On 19 December 2003, 5 days before orbit insertion, the Beagle-2 lander was successfully released towards the surface of the planet. However, no further contact was made with the lander and it was subsequently declared lost (Ref. 3).
In January 2015, the UK space agency announced that the lander has been identified in images from NASA's MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter). The images appeared to show the lander partially deployed on the surface.
On 25 December 2003 the orbiter underwent a successful orbit insertion manuver and after slow orbit adjustments it reached the operational orbit.
Nominal Operational Orbit Parameters:
• Orbital inclination - 86.9°
• Apocenter - 10,530 km
• Pericenter - 330 km
• Period - 7 hr 00 m
• Observational phase at pericenter - about 1 hour
• Communications phase - 6.5-7.0 hours minimum
Operations Center: ESOC (European Space Operations Control Center) in Darmstadt communicates with the spacecraft via the ESA New Norcia ground station in Perth, Australia. The spacecraft sends housekeeping data on instrument temperatures, voltages and spacecraft orientation, for example, and science data. The ground station sends control commands to the spacecraft. Scientific data is stored onboard using the 12 Gbit solid state mass memory prior to the downlink to Earth.
The Beagle 2 descent capsule was ejected 5 days before arrival at Mars, while the orbiter was on a Mars collision course; Mars Express was then retargeted for orbit insertion. From its hyperbolic trajectory, Beagle 2 entered and descended through the atmosphere in about 5 min, intending to land at < 40 m s–1 within an error ellipse of 20 x 100 km. The fate of Beagle 2 remains unknown because no signal was ever received from the martian surface, neither by the UK’s Jodrell Bank radio telescope nor by the Mars Express and Mars Odyssey orbiters. All of them made strenuous efforts to listen for the faintest of signals for many weeks following Beagle 2’s arrival at Mars.
ESA set up a commission to investigate the potential causes of the probable accident and issued a number of recommendations for future missions. The selected landing site was in Isidis Planitia (11.6°N, 269.5°W), which is a safe area of high scientific interest – this impact basin was probably flooded by water during part of its early history, leaving layers of sedimentary rocks. The area is surrounded by geological units of a variety of ages and compositions, from densely cratered highlands to volcanic flows to younger smooth plains. The lander’s highly integrated instrument suite was expected to perform a detailed geological, mineralogical and chemical analysis of the site’s rocks and soils, provide site meteorology, and focus on finding traces of past or present biological activity. Data from this combination of instruments could have solved the issue of life on Mars. Beagle 2’s operational lifetime was planned to be up to 180 sols (about 6 months).
Figure 3: The journey of Mars Express, from drawing board through launch, to its key science highlights during ten years of operations. With its suite of seven instruments, Mars Express has studied the subsurface of the Red Planet to the upper atmosphere and beyond to the two tiny moons Phobos and Deimos, providing an in depth analysis of the planet's history and returning stunning 3D images (video credit: ESA, Published on 3 June 2013)
Figure 4: This video, based on images taken by ESA’s Mars Express, highlights Mawrth Vallis, a 600 km-long, 2 km-deep outflow channel at the boundary of the southern highlands and the northern lowlands of Mars. The video begins at the mouth of the channel in Chryse Planitia, and heads towards the apparent source region in the Arabia Terra highlands. The 4 billion year-old plateau is characterized by many impact craters, indicative of its great age. Zooming in, patches of light and dark deposits are revealed. The light-toned layered sediments are among the largest outcrops of clay minerals – phyllosilicates – on Mars. Their presence indicates the presence of liquid water in the past. The variety of water-bearing minerals and the possibility that they might contain a record of an ancient, habitable environment on Mars led scientists to propose Mawrth Vallis as a candidate landing site for the ExoMars 2020 mission. The animation is based on a color mosaic and digital terrain model derived from data collected by the high-resolution stereo camera on Mars Express and released earlier this year (video credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, Published on 9 December 2016)
• 08 August 2019: ESA’s Mars Express has captured the cosmic contrast of Terra Cimmeria, a region in the southern highlands of Mars marked by impact craters, water-carved valleys, and sand and dust in numerous chocolate and caramel hues. 5)
- Mars is often referred to as the Red Planet, due to the characteristic hue of its orb in the sky. Up close, however, the planet is actually covered in all manner of colors – from bright whites and dark blacks to yellows, reds, greens, and the cappuccino tones seen here.
Figure 5: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Terra Cimmeria, a region found in the southern highlands of Mars. It comprises data gathered on 11 December 2018 during Mars Express orbit 18904. The ground resolution is approximately 13 meters per pixel and the images are centered at about 171º East and 40º South. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the HRSC. The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- These differences in color are visible from telescopes on Earth. They are undeniably visually striking, but also reveal a significant amount about the composition and properties of the surface material itself.
- These views, based on Mars Express data are a great example of the diversity found on the martian surface: the darker regions towards the right (north) in the image at the top of this page are rich in minerals of volcanic origin, the most common of which found on Mars is basalt. The lighter patches to the left (south) are instead largely covered in fine silicate dust.
Figure 6: Perspective view of Terra Cimmeria. This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Terra Cimmeria, a region found in the southern highlands of Mars. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 11 December 2018 during Mars Express Orbit18904. The ground resolution is approximately 13 meters per pixel and the images are centered at about 171º East and 40º South. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the HRSC. The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Mars is thought to have once seen significant volcanic activity. The planet hosts some of the largest volcanoes in the Solar System, including the very biggest, Olympus Mons, and has several notable volcanic provinces (two of which are Tharsis and Elysium). The volcanoes within these regions once released ash and dust that covered and coated the surface of Mars, forming dark basaltic sands that were swept around and covered up by other material over time.
- The largest crater in the image measures 25 km across and is 300 m deep – this relatively shallow depth is likely due to the crater being filled up with other material since its formation. Surrounding this crater are various plains, valleys, and ‘mesas’ – steep-sided mounds rising up from the martian surface.
- Some of these features are the remnants of a former water-filled valley system, seen most clearly to the upper right of the frame. These valleys spread across Terra Cimmeria, once moving water and material throughout the area.
- This water was locked up within surface ice and snow, but recent research points towards several episodes of melting that unlocked the water from glaciers and sent it flowing across Mars in liquid form.
Figure 7: Perspective view of Terra Cimmeria. This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Terra Cimmeria, a region found in the southern highlands of Mars. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 11 December 2018 during Mars Express Orbit18904. The ground resolution is approximately 13 meters per pixel and the images are centered at about 171º East and 40º South. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the HRSC. The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- To the left of the frame, thin dark trails can be seen snaking and sweeping across Terra Cimmeria – a tell-tale sign that ‘dust devils’ were once present here. Dust devils form as eddies of wind that displace the top layer of dust from the martian surface, sending it swirling up into the air. This in turn reveals a deeper layer of material that is different in color, creating a sharp visible contrast.
- Another group of dark, but larger, wind-formed features known as ‘wind streaks’ can be seen near the center-left of the image at the top of the page – shown below also as an anaglyph. These form in a similar way to dust devil tracks, except that they are caused not by eddies, but by local winds being forced over topographic features such as craters or cliffs.
- Because of this, streaks can appear to emanate from these features. Wind streaks are useful indicators in atmospheric studies; for instance, the wind that formed the streaks in this image was blowing in a roughly south-easterly direction (given that north is to the right).
- Whether altered by water, wind, impact or other means, the surface of Mars is a dynamic environment – and ESA’s Mars Express, in orbit around Mars since 2003, has managed to capture all manner of phenomena on the Red Planet in the past 16 years.
Figure 8: Terra Cimmeria in context. This image shows Terra Cimmeria, a region found in the southern highlands of Mars. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 11 December 2018 during orbit 18904 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
Figure 9: Terra Cimmeria in 3D. This image shows Terra Cimmeria, a region found in the southern highlands of Mars, in 3D when viewed using red-green or red-blue glasses. This anaglyph was derived from data obtained by the nadir and stereo channels of the HRSC on ESA’s Mars Express during spacecraft orbit 18904. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at about 171º East and 40º South. North is to the right(image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Using instruments including its High Resolution Stereo Camera, responsible for these new images, the spacecraft has watched as giant dust storms kicked up material into the air to obscure wide regions of the surface from view; spotted signs of ancient sub-surface water systems that hint at the planet’s wetter past; and probed the martian atmosphere for signs of molecules we know to be linked to life on Earth.
- It has found signs of tectonic activity at far more recent timescales than previously thought; watched strange clouds form and dissipate with the seasons; explored the patches of ice found at Mars’ northern and southern poles; and characterized the planet’s two small, mysterious moons, Phobos and Deimos.
- ESA’s fleet at Mars grew with the arrival of the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016, which has been making a detailed analysis of the planet’s atmosphere and mapping its surface. Next year, the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform will be launched to further our understanding of Mars from the planet’s intriguing surface.
Figure 10: Topographic view of Terra Cimmeria. This color-coded topographic view shows Terra Cimmeria, a region found in the southern highlands of Mars. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher altitude regions show up in whites, yellows, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. It comprises data obtained by the HRSC on Mars Express on 11 December 2018 during orbit 18904. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 171º East and 40º South. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• 04 July 2019: ESA’s Mars Express has been keeping an eye on local and regional dust storms brewing at the north pole of the Red Planet over the last month, watching as they disperse towards the equator. 6)
Figure 11: Spiral dust storm on Mars. This image was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on 26 May and covers an area of about two thousand by five thousand kilometers (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Local and regional storms lasting for a few days or weeks and confined to a small area are common place on Mars, but at their most severe can engulf the entire planet, as experienced last year in a global storm that circled the planet for many months.
Figure 12: Mars dust storm in motion. This series of images captured by the Visual Monitoring Camera onboard ESA’s Mars Express covers about 70 minutes of motion as a dust storm moves along the north polar ice cap of Mars on 29 May 2019. The storm moved with an approximate speed of 20 m/s. The polar ice cap covers much of the left of the image while the storm is seen on the right. - Mars Express was moving along its orbit but the images have been re-projected as if the observer was stationary, to make the motion of the storm clearer. The illumination angle of the Sun changes between image frames, highlighting the structures in the dust clouds. The black margins arise from the variable distance of Mars Express to the planet along its orbit: closer to the planet it cannot always image the same parts of the surface in consecutive images (image credit: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao)
- It is currently spring in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and water-ice clouds and small dust-lifting events are frequently observed along the edge of the seasonally retreating ice cap.
- Many of the spacecraft at Mars return daily weather reports from orbit or from the surface, providing global and local impressions of the changing atmospheric conditions. ESA’s Mars Express observed at least eight different storms at the edge of the ice cap between 22 May and 10 June, which formed and dissipated very quickly, between one and three days.
Figure 13: Dust storm season on Mars. Between late May and early June, several different irregular- and spiral-shaped dust storms were seen to be building up at the north polar ice cap of Mars. The images shown here were taken by the HRSC onboard ESA’s Mars Express when the spacecraft was at an altitude of about ten thousand kilometers. The long image strips cover an area of about two thousand by five thousand kilometers, extending from the north pole equatorward to the large volcanoes Olympus Mons and Elysium Mons. - The montage of images shows three different storms developing on 22 May, 26 May, and 6 June. In the latter case, the cameras watched the storm evolve until 10 June, as it moved southward towards the volcanoes. Wispy patches of light-colored clouds can be seen at the outer margin of the polar cap and also several thousand kilometers away, close to the Elysium volcanoes. At the same time, wispy clouds can be seen along the edge of the ice cap, and also further south (left) around the large volcanoes. The dark patches are the result of dust blown volcanic material on the surface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- The two cameras onboard the spacecraft, the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) and the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC), have been monitoring the storms over the last weeks. The image of Figure 11, taken by HRSC on 26 May, captures a spiral-shaped dust storm, its brown color contrasting against the white ice of the north polar ice cap below.
- Meanwhile the animated sequence (Figure 12) was compiled from images of a different storm captured by the VMC over a period of 70 minutes on 29 May. This particular storm started on 28 May and continued to around 1 June, moving towards the equator during that time.
- The montage of images (Figure 13) shows three different storms developing on 22 May, on 26 May, and between 6 and 10 June. In the latter case, the cameras watched the storm evolve for several days as it moved in an equatorward direction.
- At the same time, wispy patches of light-colored clouds can be seen at the outer margin of the polar cap and also several thousand kilometers away, close to the volcanoes Elysium Mons and Olympus Mons.
- Together with the MARCI camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express observed that when the dust storms reached the large volcanoes, orographic clouds – water ice clouds driven by the influence of the volcano’s leeward slope on the air flow – that had previously been developing started to evaporate as a result of the air mass being heated by the influx of dust.
- These regional dust storms only last a few days; the elevated dust is transported and spread out by global circulation into a thin haze in the lower atmosphere, around 20–40 km altitude. Some traces of dust and clouds remained in the volcanic province into mid-June.
• 27 June 2019: The cracked, uneven, jumbled landscape seen in this image from ESA’s Mars Express forms an intriguing type of terrain that cannot be found on Earth: chaotic terrain. 7)
- The feature visible here, Aurorae Chaos, is located in the ancient and equatorial Margaritifer Terra region of Mars. The terrain here is heavily cratered, and shows signs of myriad fascinating features – many of which are thought to be linked to past water activity.
Figure 14: Plan view of Aurorae Chaos. This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Aurorae Chaos, a large area of chaotic terrain located in the Margaritifer Terra region on Mars, and comprises data gathered on 31 October 2018 during orbit 18765. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 327ºE/11ºS. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera). The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- These images show the southern part of Aurorae Chaos in detail, highlighting various swathes of fractured rock, mismatched peaks, flat-topped mounds (mesas), scarps, jumbled cliffs, and eroded craters.
- These characteristic features sweep across the surface, and connect to a number of small outflow channels that spread into this image from beyond the top of the frame in the main color image. These channels form the eastern end of one of Mars’ most famous features – a giant valley system called Valles Marineris, which cuts deep into the surface and spans thousands of kilometers.
- This canyon is colossal: about 10 times as long, 20 times as wide, and 4.5 times as deep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon here on Earth. The Grand Canyon was carved out by running water, and is thus an excellent example of fluvial erosion – although this kind of erosion is different to that which formed Aurorae Chaos. At its eastern end, the martian canyon runs into a large network of steep-sided depressions that sit roughly four kilometers below the surrounding plains and host numerous chaotic terrains.
Figure 15: Aurorae Chaos in context. This image shows Aurorae Chaos, a large area of chaotic terrain located in the Margaritifer Terra region on Mars. The region outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 31 October 2018 during orbit 18765 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
Figure 16: This color-coded topographic view shows Aurorae Chaos, a large area of chaotic terrain located in the Margaritifer Terra region on Mars. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher altitude regions show up in whites, yellows, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. It comprises data obtained by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 31 October 2018 during orbit 18765. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 327ºE/11ºS. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- These differences in height are well illustrated in the accompanying topographic, perspective, and 3D views of this region, while the position of Aurorae Chaos with respect to surrounding valleys and chaotic terrain can be seen in the contextual view.
- The division between the chaotic terrain and plains can also be seen clearly in these images. The left (south) side of the image is notably smoother and more featureless than the jumbled right (north) side, and the two regions are split by a prominent line carving diagonally across the frame. The transition area around this scarp is especially broken and fractured; this is thought to be caused as the martian crust stretched and moved.
Figure 17: Perspective view of Aurorae Chaos. This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Aurorae Chaos, a large area of chaotic terrain located in the Margaritifer Terra region on Mars. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 31 October 2018 during orbit 18765. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 327ºE/11ºS. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera. The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- The ancient chaotic terrain we see on Mars holds information about how water once permeated and interacted with the planetary surface, including how it was transported, stored, and released.
- Chaotic terrain is thought to have formed as chunks of the martian surface collapsed in dramatic events triggered by the heating of material containing ice or water-bearing minerals – possibly due to climatic or volcanic heat sources, or an impact from an asteroid or comet. This released large amounts of water, causing the terrain above to subside. The water then drained away quickly, leaving behind the messy, broken patterns seen in regions such as Aurorae Chaos, which is thought to have formed some 3.5 billion years ago.
- However, it is not just visual evidence that suggests that water had a large role to play here. The wider region of Margaritifer Terra has been found to contain various sulphates and ancient clay deposits, indicating the past presence of evaporative processes and water-related outflows; some clays are even thought to require standing water in order to form, suggesting that large pools of liquid water may once have existed in this region.
Figure 18: This image shows Aurorae Chaos, a large area of chaotic terrain located in the Margaritifer Terra region on Mars, in 3D when viewed using red-green or red-blue glasses. This anaglyph was derived from data obtained by the nadir and stereo channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA’s Mars Express during spacecraft orbit 18765. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at about 327ºE/11ºS. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Over the past 15 years Mars Express has imaged various chaos terrains on Mars, including Iani Chaos and Ariadnes Colles, using its High Resolution Stereo Camera, and continues to study the martian surface from orbit today. Our ability to explore Mars will be aided by the arrival of the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars rover, named Rosalind Franklin, and an accompanying surface science platform in 2021. Together with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which entered Mars orbit in 2016, they will continue our quest to explore the secrets of the Red Planet from orbit and from the ground.
• 16 May 2019: Mars was once believed to be crisscrossed by a system of irrigation canals – dark troughs that sliced across the planet’s surface, excavated by an intelligent society of thirsty martians. The astronomer who promoted this idea lends his name to the crater shown in this image from ESA’s Mars Express: Lowell crater. 8) 9)
- American astronomer and author Percival Lowell is perhaps best known for popularizing this canal theory in the late 1800s and early 1900s; the idea was initially proposed by Italian scientist Giovanni Schiaparelli, who noted the presence of dark lines on Mars in observations from the 1870s. Schiaparelli described these features as canali, later translated not as ‘channels’ or ‘gullies’, but as ‘canals’ – a phrase that hinted at a somewhat more artificial origin.
Figure 19: This image shows Lowell crater on Mars. The region outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera during orbits 2640, 2662, 2684, 16895, 18910, 18977, and 18984 (the latter three in December 2018 and January 2019). The ground resolution is approximately 50 m/pixel and the images cover a region from 274.5º to 283º East and 49º to 54.5º South (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 20: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Lowell crater on Mars. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered during orbits 2640, 2662, 2684, 16895, 18910, 18977, and 18984 by the spacecraft’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The ground resolution is approximately 50 m/pixel and the images cover a region from 274.5º to 283º East and 49º to 54.5º South. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the HRSC. The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Lowell crater is roughly 200 km in diameter and located in a region of Mars known as Aonia Terra, within the planet’s ancient southern highlands. The impact that created it is thought to have taken place between 3.7 and 3.9 billion years ago; it has endured erosion and infilling since. Its crater floor has become covered and flattened by various layers of sediment, and its outer rim is marked by small dunes and gullies.
- The image also highlights a ring of mountains rising up from the crater floor and spanning 90 km across. This so-called ‘peak ring’ is thought to have formed along with the crater. The immense energy of a large impact event causes material to surge upwards before collapsing down again, forming the kind of complex morphology seen here, with an irregular mountain range encircling the crater’s center, inside the main crater rim.
- Such features are also seen in craters here on Earth, and on Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. One notable terrestrial crater that displays this kind of peak ring is Chicxulub crater – famous for its role in the extinction of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago. Studies and simulations of Chicxulub, which is around the same size as Lowell crater, have shown a peak ring that formed as a huge, unstable central peak later collapsed.
Figure 21: This color-coded topographic view shows Lowell crater on Mars. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blue and purple hues, while higher altitude regions show up in whites, yellows, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. It comprises data obtained by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera during orbits 2640, 2662, 2684, 16895, 18910, 18977, and 18984. The ground resolution is approximately 50 m/pixel and the images cover a region from 274.5º to 283º East and 49º to 54.5º South. North is up (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• 13 May 2019: One has a thick poisonous atmosphere, one has hardly any atmosphere at all, and one is just right for life to flourish – but it wasn’t always that way. The atmospheres of our two neighbors Venus and Mars can teach us a lot about the past and future scenarios for our own planet. 10)
- Rewind 4.6 billion years from the present day to the planetary construction yard, and we see that all the planets share a common history: they were all born from the same swirling cloud of gas and dust, with the newborn Sun ignited at the center. Slowly but surely, with the help of gravity, dust accumulated into boulders, eventually snowballing into planet-sized entities.
- Rocky material could withstand the heat closest to the Sun, while gassy, icy material could only survive further away, giving rise to the innermost terrestrial planets and the outermost gas and ice giants, respectively. The leftovers made asteroids and comets.
- The atmospheres of the rocky planets were formed as part of the very energetic building process, mostly by outgassing as they cooled down, with some small contributions from volcanic eruptions and minor delivery of water, gases and other ingredients by comets and asteroids. Over time the atmospheres underwent a strong evolution thanks to an intricate combination of factors that ultimately led to the current status, with Earth being the only known planet to support life, and the only one with liquid water on its surface today.
- We know from space missions such as ESA’s Venus Express, which observed Venus from orbit between 2006 and 2014, and Mars Express, investigating the Red Planet since 2003, that liquid water once flowed on our sister planets, too. While the water on Venus has long since boiled away, on Mars it is either buried underground or locked up in ice caps. Intimately linked to the story of water – and ultimately to the big question of whether life could have arisen beyond Earth – is the state of a planet’s atmosphere. And connected to that, the interplay and exchange of material between the atmosphere, oceans and the planet’s rocky interior.
Figure 22: A comparison of terrestrial planets. The four terrestrial (meaning 'Earth-like') planets of our inner Solar System: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. These images were taken by the Mariner 10, Apollo 17 and Viking missions (image credit: ESA)
- Back at our newly formed planets, from a ball of molten rock with a mantle surrounding a dense core, they stated to cool down. Earth, Venus and Mars all experienced outgassing activity in these early days, which formed the first young, hot and dense atmospheres. As these atmospheres also cooled, the first oceans rained down from the skies.
- At some stage, though, the characteristics of the geological activity of the three planets diverged. Earth’s solid lid cracked into plates, in some places diving below another plate in subduction zones, and in other places colliding to create vast mountain ranges or pulling apart to create giant rifts or new crust. Earth’s tectonic plates are still moving today, giving rise to volcanic eruptions or earthquakes at their boundaries.
- Venus, which is only slightly smaller than Earth, may still have volcanic activity today, and its surface seems to have been resurfaced with lavas as recently as half a billion years ago. Today it has no discernible plate tectonics system; its volcanoes were likely powered by thermal plumes rising through the mantle – created in a process that can be likened to a ‘lava lamp’ but on a gigantic scale.
- Mars, being a lot smaller, cooled off more quickly than Earth and Venus, and when its volcanoes became extinct it lost a key means of replenishing its atmosphere. But it still boasts the largest volcano in the entire Solar System, the 25 km high Olympus Mons, likely too the result of continuous vertical building of the crust from plumes rising from below. Even though there is evidence for tectonic activity within the last 10 million years, and even the occasional marsquake in present times, the planet is not believed to have an Earth-like tectonics system either.
- It is not just global plate tectonics alone that make Earth special, but the unique combination with oceans. Today our oceans, which cover about two-thirds of Earth’s surface, absorb and store much of our planet’s heat, transporting it along currents around the globe. As a tectonic plate is dragged down into the mantle, it warms up and releases water and gases trapped in the rocks, which in turn percolate through hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
- Extremely hardy lifeforms have been found in such environments at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, providing clues as to how early life may have begun, and giving scientists pointers on where to look elsewhere in the Solar System: Jupiter’s moon Europa, or Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus for example, which conceal oceans of liquid water beneath their icy crusts, with evidence from space missions like Cassini suggesting hydrothermal activity may be present.
- Moreover, plate tectonics helps to modulate our atmosphere, regulating the amount of carbon dioxide on our planet over long timescales. When atmospheric carbon dioxide combines with water, carbonic acid is formed, which in turn dissolves rocks. Rain brings the carbonic acid and calcium to the oceans – carbon dioxide is also dissolved directly in oceans – where it is cycled back into the ocean floor. For almost half of Earth’s history the atmosphere contained very little oxygen. Oceanic cyanobacteria were the first to use the Sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, a turning point in providing the atmosphere that much further down the line allowed complex life to flourish. Without the planetary recycling and regulation between the mantle, oceans and atmosphere, Earth may have ended up more like Venus.
Extreme greenhouse effect
- Venus is sometimes referred to as Earth’s evil twin on account of it being almost the same size but plagued with a thick noxious atmosphere and a sweltering 470ºC surface. Its high pressure and temperature is hot enough to melt lead – and destroy the spacecraft that dare to land on it. Thanks to its dense atmosphere, it is even hotter than planet Mercury, which orbits closer to the Sun. Its dramatic deviation from an Earth-like environment is often used as an example of what happens in a runaway greenhouse effect.
- The main source of heat in the Solar System is the Sun’s energy, which warms a planet’s surface up, and then the planet radiates energy back into space. An atmosphere traps some of the outgoing energy, retaining heat – the so-called greenhouse effect. It is a natural phenomenon that helps regulate a planet’s temperature. If it weren’t for greenhouse gases like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and ozone, Earth’s surface temperature would be about 30 degrees cooler than its present +15ºC average.
- Over the past centuries, humans have altered this natural balance on Earth, strengthening the greenhouse effect since the dawn of industrial activity by contributing additional carbon dioxide along with nitrogen oxides, sulphates and other trace gases and dust and smoke particles into the air. The long-term effects on our planet include global warming, acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer. The consequences of a warming climate are far-reaching, potentially affecting freshwater resources, global food production and sea level, and triggering an increase in extreme-weather events.
- There is no human activity on Venus, but studying its atmosphere provides a natural laboratory to better understand a runaway greenhouse effect. At some point in its history, Venus began trapping too much heat. It was once thought to host oceans like Earth, but the added heat turned water into steam, and in turn, additional water vapor in the atmosphere trapped more and more heat until entire oceans completely evaporated. Venus Express even showed that water vapor is still escaping from Venus’ atmosphere and into space today.
- Venus Express also discovered a mysterious layer of high-altitude sulphur dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. Sulphur dioxide is expected from the emission of volcanoes – over the mission’s duration Venus Express recorded large changes in the sulphur dioxide content of the atmosphere. This leads to sulfuric acid clouds and droplets at altitudes of about 50-70 km – any remaining sulphur dioxide should be destroyed by intense solar radiation. So it was a surprise for Venus Express to discover a layer of the gas at around 100 km. It was determined that evaporating sulfuric acid droplets free gaseous sulfuric acid that is then broken apart by sunlight, releasing the sulphur dioxide gas.
- The observation adds to the discussion what might happen if large quantities of sulphur dioxide are injected into Earth’s atmosphere – a proposal made for how to mitigate the effects of the changing climate on Earth. The concept was demonstrated from the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, when sulphur dioxide ejected from the eruption created small droplets of concentrated sulfuric acid – like those found in Venus’ clouds – at about 20 km altitude. This generated a haze layer and cooled our planet globally by about 0.5ºC for several years. Because this haze reflects heat it has been proposed that one way to reduce global temperatures would be to inject artificially large quantities of sulphur dioxide into our atmosphere. However, the natural effects of Mt Pinatubo only offered a temporary cooling effect. Studying the enormous layer of sulfuric acid cloud droplets at Venus offers a natural way to study the longer term effects; an initially protective haze at higher altitude would eventually be converted back into gaseous sulfuric acid, which is transparent and allows all the Sun’s rays through. Not to mention the side-effect of acid rain, which on Earth can cause harmful effects on soils, plant life and water.
Figure 23: Appearances can be deceiving. This thick, cloud-rich atmosphere rains sulfuric acid and below lie not oceans but a baked and barren lava-strewn surface. Welcome to Venus. The second planet from the Sun is often coined Earth’s ‘evil twin’ on account of it being almost the same size but instead plagued with a poisonous atmosphere of carbon dioxide and a sweltering 470ºC surface. Its high pressure and temperature is hot enough to melt lead and destroy the spacecraft that dare to land on it. Thanks to its dense atmosphere, it is even hotter than planet Mercury, which orbits closer to the Sun (image credit: ESA/MPS/DLR-PF/IDA) 11)
- Our other neighbor, Mars, lies at another extreme: although its atmosphere is also predominantly carbon dioxide, today it hardly has any at all, with a total atmospheric volume less than 1% of Earth’s.
- Mars’ existing atmosphere is so thin that although carbon dioxide condenses into clouds, it cannot retain sufficient energy from the Sun to maintain surface water – it vaporises instantly at the surface. But with its low pressure and relatively balmy temperatures of -55ºC (ranging from -133ºC at the winter pole to +27ºC during summer), spacecraft don’t melt on its surface, allowing us greater access to uncover its secrets. Furthermore, thanks to the lack of recycling plate tectonics on the planet, four billion year old rocks are directly accessible to our landers and rovers exploring its surface. Meanwhile our orbiters, including Mars Express, which has been surveying the planet for more than 15 years, are constantly finding evidence for its once flowing waters, oceans and lakes, giving a tantalizing hope that it might have once supported life.
- The Red Planet too would have started out with a thicker atmosphere thanks to the delivery of volatiles from asteroids and comets, and volcanic outgassing from the planet as its rocky interior cooled down. It simply couldn’t hold on to its atmosphere most likely because of its smaller mass and lower gravity. In addition, its initial higher temperature would have given more energy to gas molecules in the atmosphere, allowing them to escape more easily. And, having also lost its global magnetic field early in its history, the remaining atmosphere was subsequently exposed to the solar wind – a continuous flow of charged particles from the Sun – that, just as on Venus, continues to strip away the atmosphere even today.
- With a decreased atmosphere, the surface water moved underground, released as vast flash-floods only when impacts heated the ground and released the subsurface water and ice. It is also locked up in the polar ice caps. Mars Express also recently detected a pool of liquid water buried within two kilometers of the surface. Could evidence of life also be underground? This question is at the heart of Europe’s ExoMars rover, scheduled to launch in 2020 and land in 2021 to drill up to two meters below the surface to retrieve and analyze samples in search for biomarkers.
- Mars is thought to be currently coming out of an ice age. Like Earth, Mars is sensitive to changes in factors such as the tilt of its rotational axis as it orbits the Sun; it is thought that the stability of water at the surface has varied over thousands to millions of years as the axial tilt of the planet and its distance from the Sun undergo cyclical changes. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, currently investigating the Red Planet from orbit, recently detected hydrated material in equatorial regions that could represent former locations of the planet’s poles in the past.
- The Trace Gas Orbiter’s primary mission is to conduct a precise inventory of the planet’s atmosphere, in particular the trace gases which make up less than 1% of the planet’s total volume of atmosphere. Of particular interest is methane, which on Earth is produced largely by biological activity, and also by natural and geological processes. Hints of methane have previously been reported by Mars Express, and later by NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of the planet, but the Trace Gas Orbiter’s highly sensitive instruments have so far reported a general absence of the gas, deepening the mystery. In order to corroborate the different results, scientists are not only investigating how methane might be created, but also how it might be destroyed close to the surface. Not all lifeforms generate methane, however, and the rover with its underground drill will hopefully be able to tell us more. Certainly the continued exploration of the Red Planet will help us understand how and why Mars’ habitability potential has changed over time.
Figure 24: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a network of dried-up valleys on Mars, and comprises data gathered on 19 November 2018 during Mars Express orbit 18831. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at 66°E/17°S. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Despite starting with the same ingredients, Earth’s neighbors suffered devastating climate catastrophes and could not hold on to their water for long. Venus became too hot and Mars too cold; only Earth became the ‘Goldilocks’ planet with the just-right conditions. Did we come close to becoming Mars-like in a previous ice age? How close are we to the runaway greenhouse effect that plagues Venus? Understanding the evolution of these planets and the role of their atmospheres is tremendously important for understanding climatic changes on our own planet as ultimately the same laws of physics govern all. The data returned from our orbiting spacecraft provide natural reminders that climate stability is not something to be taken for granted.
- In any case, in the very long term – billions of years into the future – a greenhouse Earth is an inevitable outcome at the hands of the aging Sun. Our once life-giving star will eventually swell and brighten, injecting enough heat into Earth’s delicate system to boil our oceans, sending it down the same pathway as its evil twin.
- We are changing our natural world faster than at any other time in history. Understanding the intricacies of how Earth works as a system and the impact that human activity is having on natural processes are huge environmental challenges. Satellites are vital for taking the pulse of our planet, delivering the information we need to understand and monitor our precious world, and for making decisions to safeguard our future. Earth observation data is also key to a myriad of practical applications to improve everyday life and to boost economies. This week we focus on the world’s biggest conference on Earth observation where thousands of scientists and data users discuss the latest results and look to the future of Earth observation(Ref. 10) .
• 08 April 2019: Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is one of humankind’s major long-term health challenges. Now research into helping humans live on Mars could help address this looming problem. 12)
- Dennis Claessen, associate professor at the Institute of Biology at Leiden University, the Netherlands works in synthetic biology, in which bacteria are engineered to solve problems that cannot be tackled – or are not tackled well – by ‘wild’ bacteria. A team of his students entered the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition with a solution to the problem of growing non-toxic plants on Mars, but needed ‘Martian’ gravity to test their ideas.
Figure 25: This perspective view shows the central part of Nicholson Crater, at approximately 0.0º South and 195.5º East, looking west. Nicholson Crater, measuring approximately 100 km wide, is located at the southern edge of Amazonis Planitia, north-west of a region called Medusae Fossae. The HRSC on board ESA's Mars Express obtained this image during orbit 1104 around Mars with a ground resolution of approximately 15.3 m/pixel. The image was released on 14 July 2000 [image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)]
- “The soil on Mars has perchlorate chemical compounds in it, which can be toxic for humans,” explains Prof. Claessen. High doses of perchlorate can inhibit the thyroid gland’s uptake of iodine and interfere with foetal development. - Our students started ‘building’ a bacterium that would degrade the perchlorate to chlorine and oxygen, but they needed to know whether that bacterium would behave the same way in the partial gravity of Mars as it would on Earth.”
Figure 26: The RPM (Random Positioning Machine) was developed by the Dutch office of Airbus for ESA to do experiments in zero or reduced gravity here on Earth without going into space. The RPM rotates any enclosed experiment ‘randomly’ to minimize the influence of Earth’s gravity, thereby simulating what would be experienced in space. The original models could successfully simulate zero gravity, typically referred to as microgravity. The newer RPM 2.0 can additionally simulate partial gravity, which is between 0g and 1g (video credit: Airbus, Released on 5 April 2019)
- The challenge was to find a way to reproduce Mars gravity on Earth, and the students solved it using the RPM.
- The first recorded experiment on living systems using machines to manipulate gravity was done in 1806 using a rotating waterwheel. Two hundred years later the RPM, designed by the Netherlands-based Airbus team for ESA, is the latest instrument developed to experiment in zero or reduced gravity without going into space.
- As its name suggests, the RPM continually changes its orientation at random, so that items placed within it have no opportunity to adjust to a steady gravity direction. The original design could successfully simulate zero gravity while the newer RPM 2.0 can additionally simulate partial gravity, the stages between normal Earth gravity and the weightless environment.
Figure 27: Streptomyces colony at Leiden University (image credit: Institute of Biology at Leiden University, The Netherlands)
- “The RPM machines offer a great alternative to organizations looking to do experiments in zero and partial gravity,” says Derk Schneemann at Verhaert Netherlands. Derk is the Dutch broker in the network of ESA Innovation Partners that facilitates the re-use of space technology in other sectors and which is part of ESA’s Business Applications and Space Solutions Program.
Figure 28: iGEM team from the Institute of Biology at Leiden University, The Netherlands (image credit: Institute of Biology at Leiden University)
- “During their experiments they noticed that when bacteria grew in partial gravity, they became stressed as they accumulated waste around them that they couldn’t get rid of. This holds great potential because when microbes belonging to the Streptomyces family become stressed, they usually start making antibiotics.
- “Seventy percent of all the antibiotics humans use are derived from Streptomyces bacteria and we know they have the potential to produce even more. Using the RPM to stress them in new ways may help us to find ones we’ve never seen before.”
Detoxifying soil on Mars and Earth
- Prof. Claessen is now building a Dutch consortium to investigate soil detoxification on a larger scale. This will have applications on Earth. For example, there is a lot of perchlorate in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where the soil is believed to resemble that on Mars. Atacama soil was previously used as fertilizer in the US, but later it was found that perchlorate had been washed from this fertilizer into groundwater used for drinking.
- Once the Dutch team is in place and has funding, research into Streptomyces microbes (which are naturally found in Earth’s soil, where they play a vital role in breaking down organic matter) and antibiotics could also be done with the RPM.
- “To find that they hold the potential for discovering new antibiotics as well is even more exciting, as antibiotic resistance is something we need to tackle urgently,” adds Derk Schneemann.
Space for health
- The United Nations World Health Organization marks World Health Day on 7 April every year. The third Sustainable Development Goal underlines the right to health: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. On-orbit research, space technology and space applications can help improve health on Earth by monitoring our environment, helping track disease, improving diagnostics, and working on new medicines among other things. The UN is also focusing particularly this year on universal health coverage.
• 01 April 2019: A reanalysis of data collected by ESA’s Mars Express during the first 20 months of NASA’s Curiosity mission found one case of correlated methane detection, the first time an in-situ measurement has been independently confirmed from orbit. 13)
- Reports of methane in the martian atmosphere have been intensely debated, with Mars Express contributing one of the first measurements from orbit in 2004, shortly after its arrival at the Red Planet.
- The molecule attracts such attention because on Earth methane is generated by living organisms, as well as geological processes. Because it can be destroyed quickly by atmospheric processes, any detection of the molecule in the martian atmosphere means it must have been released relatively recently – even if the methane itself was produced millions or billions of years ago and lay trapped in underground reservoirs until now.
Figure 29: Data collected by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer onboard ESA’s Mars Express during the first 20 months of NASA’s Curiosity mission found one case of correlated methane detection, the first time an in-situ measurement has been independently confirmed from orbit. Ten other observations in the Mars Express study period reported no detections at the limit of the spectrometer’s sensitivity; all of these correspond to a period of low measurements reported by Curiosity (image credit: ESA/Giuranna et al (2019)
Legend to Figure 29: The details of the methane spike are illustrated in this graphic – the Mars Express detection was made one day after the elevated reading recorded by Curiosity, which is exploring Gale Crater, just south of the martian equator. Taken together, the two results can be used to examine the possible source region for the methane.
Two independent analyses were made, by examining a wide region around Gale Crater. The region was divided into grids of about 250 x 250 km2, and in one study, computer simulations were used to predict the probability of methane emission from each square (indicated by the numbers in each square). The simulations took into account the measured data, expected atmospheric circulation patterns, and methane release intensity and duration based on the geological phenomenon of ‘gas seepage’. In the other study, geologists scrutinized the region for features where gas seepage is expected – these are the kind of features that might be associated with methane release.
The geological analysis pointed to one of the regions that the computer simulations predicted would be the most likely region for methane release. The area marked by the black dots is thought to contain shallow ice that could easily trap subsurface methane, and tectonic faults in the grid square between this region and Gale Crater are thought to extend below the surface and break through the ice, causing the episodic release of methane.
- While spacecraft and telescopic observations from Earth have in general reported no or very low detections of methane, or measurements right at the limit of the instruments’ capabilities, a handful of spurious spikes, along with Curiosity’s reported seasonal variation at its location in Gale Crater, raise the exciting question of how it is being generated and destroyed in present times.
- Now, for the first time, a strong signal measured by the Curiosity rover on 15 June 2013 is backed up by an independent observation by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) onboard Mars Express the next day, as the spacecraft flew over Gale Crater.
- The study exploited a new observation technique, allowing the collection of several hundred measurements in one area over a short period of time. The teams also developed a refined analysis technique to get the best out of their data.
- “In general we did not detect any methane, aside from one definite detection of about 15 parts per billion by volume of methane in the atmosphere, which turned out to be a day after Curiosity reported a spike of about six parts per billion,” says Marco Giuranna from the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome, Italy, the principal investigator for the PFS experiment, and lead author of the paper reporting the results in Nature Geoscience today. 14)
- “Although parts per billion in general means a relatively small amount, it is quite remarkable for Mars – our measurement corresponds to an average of about 46 tons of methane that was present in the area of 49,000 km2 observed from our orbit.”
- Ten other observations in the Mars Express study period that reported no detections at the limit of the spectrometer’s sensitivity corresponded to a period of low measurements reported by Curiosity.
Pinpointing the source
- At the time of the Curiosity detection, it was speculated that the methane originated north of the rover, because the prevailing winds were southward, and that the release likely occurred inside the crater.
- “Our new Mars Express data, taken one day after Curiosity’s recording, change the interpretation of where the methane originated from, especially when considering global atmospheric circulation patterns together with the local geology,” adds Marco. “Based on geological evidence and the amount of methane that we measured, we think that the source is unlikely to be located within the crater.”
- Marco and his colleagues made two independent analyses to home in on potential source regions of the methane, dividing up a wide region around Gale Crater into grids of about 250 x 250 km2.
- In one study, collaborators from the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels applied computer simulations to create one million emission scenarios for each square, in order to predict the probability of methane emission for each of those locations. The simulations took into account the measured data, expected atmospheric circulation patterns, and methane release intensity and duration based on the geological phenomenon of ‘gas seepage’.
- In the other parallel study, geologists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, Italy and the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, scrutinized the region around Gale Crater for features where gas seepage is expected – these are the kind of features that might be associated with methane release.
- This process is well known on Earth to occur along tectonic faults and from natural gas fields, with a variety of release intensities. For example, on Earth, gas emission from active mud volcanoes is typically continuous with background variations, but also with sudden strong bursts, while other seeps might release gas intermittently.
- Episodic gas release, that is, generally long quiescence with no emission in between short-duration bursts, is typical of the expulsion of gas from small or ‘dying’ seeps or due to seismic events. On Mars, episodic gas expulsions could also be created during a meteorite impact, liberating gas trapped below the surface.
- “We identified tectonic faults that might extend below a region proposed to contain shallow ice. Since permafrost is an excellent seal for methane, it is possible that the ice here could trap subsurface methane and release it episodically along the faults that break through this ice,” says co-author Giuseppe Etiope from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome.
- “Remarkably, we saw that the atmospheric simulation and geological assessment, performed independently of each other, suggested the same region of provenance of the methane.”
- “Our results support the idea that methane release on Mars might be characterized by small, transient geological events rather than a constantly replenishing global presence, but we also need to understand better how methane is removed from the atmosphere, and how to reconcile the Mars Express data with results from other missions,” adds co-author Frank Daerden from the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in Brussels.
- “We will re-analyze more of the data collected by our instrument in the past, while continuing our ongoing monitoring efforts, including coordinating some observations with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter,” concludes Marco.
- The ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is designed to make the most detailed inventory of the martian atmosphere yet, began its science observations in April 2018.
- “Mars Express was the first to report a significant detection of methane from orbit around Mars, and now, fifteen years later, we can announce the first simultaneous and co-located detection of methane with a rover on the surface,” says Dmitri Titov, ESA’s Mars Express project scientist.
- “With the spacecraft and its payload still operative, Mars Express is one of the most successful space missions to be sent to Earth’s planetary neighbor. We expect more exciting science from joint efforts by both ESA orbiters at Mars.”
- The Mars Express detections were made by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS). The Curiosity measurements were made by the Tunable Laser Spectrometer – Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (TLS-SAM).
Figure 30: How methane is created and destroyed on Mars is an important question in understanding the various detections and non-detections of methane at Mars, with differences in both time and location. Although making up a very small amount of the overall atmospheric inventory, methane in particular holds key clues to the planet’s current state of activity. This graphic depicts some of the possible ways methane might be added or removed from the atmosphere. One exciting possibility is that methane is generated by microbes. If buried underground, this gas could be stored in lattice-structured ice formations known as clathrates, and released to the atmosphere at a much later time (image credit: ESA)
Legend to Figure 30: Methane can also be generated by reactions between carbon dioxide and hydrogen (which, in turn, can be produced by reaction of water and olivine-rich rocks), by deep magmatic degassing or by thermal degradation of ancient organic matter. Again, this could be stored underground and outgassed through cracks in the surface. Methane can also become trapped in pockets of shallow ice, such as seasonal permafrost.
Ultraviolet radiation can both generate methane – through reactions with other molecules or organic material already on the surface, such as comet dust falling onto Mars – and break it down. Ultraviolet reactions in the upper atmosphere (above 60 km) and oxidation reactions in the lower atmosphere (below 60 km) acts to transform methane into carbon dioxide, hydrogen and water vapor, and leads to a lifetime of the molecule of about 300 years.
Methane can also be quickly distributed around the planet by atmospheric circulation, diluting its signal and making it challenging to identify individual sources. Because of the lifetime of the molecule when considering atmospheric processes, any detections today imply it has been released relatively recently.
But other generation and destruction methods have been proposed which explain more localized detections and also allow a faster removal of methane from the atmosphere, closer to the surface of the planet. Dust is abundant in the lower atmosphere below 10 km and may play a role, along with interactions directly with the surface. For example, one idea is that methane diffuses or ‘seeps’ through the surface in localized regions, and is adsorbed back into the surface regolith. Another idea is that strong winds eroding the planet’s surface allows methane to react quickly with dust grains, removing the signature of methane. Seasonal dust storms and dust devils could also accelerate this process.
Continued exploration at Mars – from orbit and the surface alike – along with laboratory experiments and simulations, will help scientists to better understand the different processes involved in generating and destroying methane.
• 28 March 2019: The winds of Mars are responsible for myriad features across the planet’s surface – including the dark dunes and wispy, filament-like streaks seen in this image from ESA’s Mars Express. 15)
Figure 31: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Chalcoporos Rupes, a region on Mars that shows signs of dust and wind activity. It comprises data gathered on 3 January 2019 during Mars Express Orbit 18983. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 23º East and 53º South. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- The intriguing features shown here are ‘dust devil’ tracks: as the Sun heats up the martian ground during the day, vortices form that lift warm air from near the surface, whipping up dust as they do so, shaping and sculpting it into swirling, column-shaped, tornado-like whirlwinds (click here for videos of dust devils made by NASA's Mars rover Spirit).
Figure 32: This image shows part of the Noachis quadrangle on Mars: Chalcoporos Rupes. The region outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 3 January 2019 during Mars Express Orbit 18983. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 23º East and 53º South (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- These dust devils range across the entire planet, lifting the top, brighter layer of dust from the surface, and leaving darker paths in their wake. They are most often seen in the martian spring and summer, lasting for a few months at most before their tracks become obscured by dust that has been buffeted around by storms and winds.
- These Mars Express images show a curving, looping, crisscrossing web of dust devil tracks in the southern hemisphere of the planet, around an escarpment feature known as Chalcoporos Rupes. This area is covered in a thick layer of dust and is not infrequently home to wind-related activity.
- Areas of Mars that most regularly see dust devils include Amazonis Planitia, Argyre Planitia, Hellas Basin, and two impact craters that lie close to the region shown here: Proctor and Russell.
- Proctor, Russell, and Chalcoproros Rupes are based in Mars’ Noachis quadrangle, an area so thickly pockmarked with impact craters that it is thought to be one of the oldest parts of the planet.
- Both the craters visible in this frame boast dense, dark, eye-catching patches of rippling sand dunes, while the surrounding terrain is decorated with a broad web of dunes and signs of past dust devil activity.
Figure 33: This color-coded topographic view shows Chalcoporos Rupes, a region on Mars that shows signs of dust and wind activity. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blue and purple hues, while higher altitude regions show up in whites, yellows, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. It comprises data obtained by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 3 January 2019 during Mars Express Orbit 18983. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 23º East and 53º South. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Martian dust devils are similar to those seen on Earth in especially dry, arid, desert landscapes – but they are far larger. They can tower up to eight kilometers high on the Red Planet, creating paths that are hundreds of meters wide and stretch out for a few kilometers.
- Their colossal size makes them highly effective at carrying dust high up into Mars’ atmosphere – in fact, these devils may lift as much material as a martian global dust storm does at its peak.
Figure 34: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Chalcoporos Rupes, a region on Mars that shows signs of dust and wind activity. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 3 January 2019 during Mars Express Orbit 18983. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 23º East and 53º South. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface (image credit: ESA)
- Such dust storms are immense and impressive. Mars Express captured signs of a burgeoning storm near Mars’ north pole in April of last year, highlighting an intense boundary between the planet’s usual, calm, ochre-hued surface and an incoming wall of dust clouds – and this was a somewhat modest dust storm compared to those that blanket the entirety of Mars and rage on for months.
- Dust devils have been seen often on Mars, both by Mars Express and other missions – including the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which recently imaged an impressive pattern of dust devil tracks in the Terra Sabaea region of Mars that may be the result of hundreds or even thousands of small martian tornadoes coming together and leaving their mark on the planet’s surface.
- The Trace Gas Orbiter will be joined by a rover – recently named Rosalind Franklin – and a surface science platform, due to launch in 2020. These will allow the ExoMars mission to explore the Red Planet in even greater detail in coming years.
Figure 35: This 3D image, best viewed using red-green or red-blue glasses, shows Chalcoporos Rupes, a region on Mars that shows signs of dust and wind activity. This anaglyph was derived from data obtained by the nadir and stereo channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA’s Mars Express during spacecraft orbit 18983. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at about 23º East and 53º South. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• 28 February 2019: Mars Express has revealed the first geological evidence of a system of ancient interconnected lakes that once lay deep beneath the Red Planet’s surface, five of which may contain minerals crucial to life. 16)
- Mars appears to be an arid world, but its surface shows compelling signs that large amounts of water once existed across the planet. We see features that would have needed water to form – branching flow channels and valleys, for example – and just last year Mars Express detected a pool of liquid water beneath the planet’s south pole.
- A new study now reveals the extent of underground water on ancient Mars that was previously only predicted by models.
Figure 36: Example of features identified in a deep basin on Mars that show it was influenced by groundwater billions of years ago (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Figure 37: This image shows the distribution of a number of deep craters (marked as dots) recently explored as part of a study into groundwater on Mars. The background image is shown in colors representing topography: reds and oranges are lower elevations, and blues and greens are higher ones. The study found that the floors of the basins, which sit over 4000 m deep, show signs of past water – the first geological evidence that the Red Planet once had a system of interconnected groundwater-fed lakes that spanned the entire planet [image credit: Topography: NASA/MGS/MOLA; Crater distribution: F. Salese et al (2019)]
- “Early Mars was a watery world, but as the planet’s climate changed this water retreated below the surface to form pools and ‘groundwater’,” says lead author Francesco Salese of Utrecht University, the Netherlands. “We traced this water in our study, as its scale and role is a matter of debate, and we found the first geological evidence of a planet-wide groundwater system on Mars.” 17)
- Salese and colleagues explored 24 deep, enclosed craters in the northern hemisphere of Mars, with floors lying roughly 4000 m below martian ‘sea level’ (a level that, given the planet’s lack of seas, is arbitrarily defined on Mars based on elevation and atmospheric pressure).
- They found features on the floors of these craters that could only have formed in the presence of water. Many craters contain multiple features, all at depths of 4000 to 4500 m – indicating that these craters once contained pools and flows of water that changed and receded over time.
Figure 38: This diagram shows a model of how crater basins on Mars evolved over time and how they once held water. This model forms the basis of a new study into groundwater on Mars, which found that a number of deep basins – with floors sitting over 4000 km deep – show signs of having once contained pools of water. Images (from the context camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) show examples of the different features observed in the basins. — There are three main stages: in the first (top), the crater basin is flooded with water and water-related features – deltas, sapping valleys, channels, shorelines, and so on – form within. In the second stage (middle), the planet-wide water level drops and new landforms emerge as a result. In the final stage (bottom), the crater dries out and becomes eroded, and features formed over the previous few billions of years are revealed [image credit: Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS; Diagram adapted from F. Salese et al. (2019)]
- Features include channels etched into crater walls, valleys carved out by sapping groundwater, dark, curved deltas thought to have formed as water levels rose and fell, ridged terraces within crater walls formed by standing water, and fan-shaped deposits of sediment associated with flowing water.
- The water level aligns with the proposed shorelines of a putative martian ocean thought to have existed on Mars between three and four billion years ago.
- “We think that this ocean may have connected to a system of underground lakes that spread across the entire planet,” adds co-author Gian Gabriele Ori, director of the Universita D’Annunzio’s International Research School of Planetary Sciences, Italy.
- “These lakes would have existed around 3.5 billion years ago, so may have been contemporaries of a martian ocean.”
- The history of water on Mars is a complex one, and is intricately linked to understanding whether or not life ever arose there – and, if so, where, when, and how it did so.
- The team also spotted signs of minerals within five of the craters that are linked to the emergence of life on Earth: various clays, carbonates, and silicates. The finding adds weight to the idea that these basins on Mars may once have had the ingredients to host life. Moreover, they were the only basins deep enough to intersect with the water-saturated part of Mars’ crust for long periods of time, with evidence perhaps still buried in the sediments today.
- Exploring sites like these may thus reveal the conditions suitable for past life, and are therefore highly relevant to astrobiological missions such as ExoMars – a joint ESA and Roscosmos endeavor. While the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is already studying Mars from above, the next mission will launch next year. It comprises a rover – recently named after Rosalind Franklin – and a surface science platform, and will target and explore martian sites thought to be key in the hunt for signs of life on Mars.
- “Findings like this are hugely important; they help us to identify the regions of Mars that are the most promising for finding signs of past life,” says Dmitri Titov, ESA’s Mars Express project scientist.
- “It is especially exciting that a mission that has been so fruitful at the Red Planet, Mars Express, is now instrumental in helping future missions such as ExoMars explore the planet in a different way. It’s a great example of missions working together with great success.”
• 21 February 2019: These images from ESA’s Mars Express satellite show a branching, desiccated system of trenches and valleys, signs of ancient water flow that hint at a warmer, wetter past for the Red Planet. 18)
- We see Mars as a cold, dry world, but plenty of evidence suggests that this was not always the case. Research in past years instead increasingly indicates that the planet once had a thicker, denser atmosphere that was able to lock in far greater amounts of warmth, and therefore facilitate and support the flow of liquid water on the surface below.
- While this is no longer the case, we see clear signs of past water activity tracing across the martian surface. This image shows one such region: a system of valleys in the southern highlands of Mars, located east of a large, well-known impact crater called Huygens and north of Hellas, the largest impact basin on the planet. At 3.5 to four billion years old, the southern highlands are some of the oldest and most heavily cratered parts of Mars, with many signs of ancient water flow observed here.
Figure 39: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a valley network on Mars. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 19 November 2018 during Mars Express orbit 18831. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at 66ºE/17ºS. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 40: This image shows the landscape in and around a network of dried-up valleys on Mars. The region outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 19 November 2018 during orbit 18831. The different colors across the frame represent the elevation of the terrain, as indicated by the bar at the bottom (image credit: Topography: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team; Map compilation: Freie Universitat Berlin)
Figure 41: This color-coded topographic view shows the relative heights of the terrain in and around a network of dried-up valleys on Mars. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher altitude regions show up in whites, yellows, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. It comprises data obtained by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express on 19 November 2018 during Mars Express orbit 18831. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at 66°E/17°S. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- The topography of this region suggests that water flowed downhill from the north (right in the main color, topography and 3D images) to the south (left), carving out valleys up to two kilometers across and 200 meters deep as it did so. We see these valleys as they stand today, having undergone significant and heavy erosion since they were formed. This erosion is visible in the form of broken down, smoothed, fragmented and dissected valley rims, especially in the valleys cutting from east to west.
- Overall, the valley system appears to branch out significantly, forming a pattern a little like tree branches stemming from a central trunk. This kind of morphology is known as ‘dendritic’ – the term is derived from the Greek word for tree (dendron), and it is easy to see why. Various channels split off from the central valley, forming little tributaries that often split again on their journey outwards.
- This kind of dendritic structure is also seen in drainage systems on Earth. A particularly good example is that of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, which snakes its way from its source in western Tibet down through China, India, and Bangladesh. In the case of this image of Mars, these branching channels were likely formed by surface water runoff from a once-strong river flow, combined with extensive rainfall. This flow is thought to have cut through existing terrain on Mars, forging new paths and carving a new landscape.
- While it is unclear where all of this water came from originally – precipitation, groundwater, melting glaciers? – all of this required a far warmer and more watery past for Mars than the planet we see today.
- A tantalizing question raised by this warmer and wetter climate is whether conditions would have been suitable for life – a topic at the heart of Mars exploration. Next year, ESA and Roscosmos will launch the ExoMars mission comprising a rover – recently named Rosalind Franklin – and a surface science platform. The rover will drive to interesting locations to drill below the surface in search for signs of life – the first mission of its kind. Meanwhile, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter continues to analyze the atmosphere in greater detail than ever, with a particular interest for gases potentially related to biological or geological activity, and to identify subsurface locations where water-ice or hydrated minerals are present.
- This succession of spacecraft at Mars – both in orbit and on the surface – ensures ESA’s long-term presence in Mars science and exploration. The next step that ESA together with international partners are considering is returning a sample of Mars to Earth – an ambitious task that will provide scientific treasures for generations to come.
Figure 42: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a network of dried-up valleys on Mars, and comprises data gathered on 19 November 2018 during Mars Express orbit 18831. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at 66ºE/17ºS. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• 11 January 2019: Fifteen years ago, early on the evening of Saturday 10 January 2004, over a dozen scientists crammed into a tiny, somewhat austere room at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) research center in Berlin Adlershof to stare intently at two monitors. They were awaiting the first images from 'their' experiment, the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). Just over two weeks earlier, the Mars Express spacecraft, launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), had reached its destination and maneuvered into a stable, elliptical orbit over the poles of the planet. As planned, the experiments were now set to begin. Despite an initial unsatisfactory test, HRSC showed its full potential during the tenth orbit. Mars Express transmitted razor-sharp high-definition image data with a perfect brightness distribution via ESA's ground stations to the ESOC (European Space Operations Center) in Darmstadt. In Berlin the images were greeted with boundless enthusiasm. This was the beginning of a success story that has lasted one-and-a-half decades. 19)
- HRSC is a German camera experiment developed by DLR and carried on board ESA's Mars Express orbiter; it is operated by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research. The spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since Christmas 2003. This week, on 8 January 2019, the orbiter, dubbed 'MEX' by the scientists and engineers involved in the project, completed its 19,000th orbit of Mars. ESA's first planetary mission is a true 'marathon runner'. In total, the probe has travelled approximately 950 million km around Mars, in addition to its almost 500-million-kilometer journey from Earth to Mars. The total distance travelled is roughly the same as the distance from the Sun to Saturn.
- The high-resolution image data, in stereo and color, form the basis for the global mapping of Mars and the creation of digital terrain models that reveal the planet's topography. HRSC has acquired image data during more than 5000 orbits around Mars and thus provided more data than any other German experiment investigating objects within the Solar System. To date, approximately 360 GB of compressed raw data have been acquired and transmitted to Earth. After 'unpacking' the data packets and putting them through the first stage of processing, the researchers have 5400 GB of data, which form the basis for further processing into image data suitable for cartography.
Figure 43: The striking landscape of Hydraotes Chaos on Mars acquired by HRSC (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)
- The images have resulted in an ever-growing collection of spectacular views of the diverse Martian landscape – from image and terrain model mosaics to animations that can be derived from the digital landscape models. The camera has provided coverage of 80 percent of the Martian surface at high resolution (better than 20 m/pixel). Originally, Mars Express was intended to last only one Martian year, which equates to two Earth years. Due to its success, ESA has already extended the mission seven times, and it is now set to run until the end of 2022. Ralf Jaumann from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof is the Principal Investigator for the experiment; the science and engineering team includes 51 co-investigators. Hundreds of scientists worldwide are now working with the data from the experiment. The systematic processing of the camera data is performed at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research. Staff in the Department of Planetary Science and Remote Sensing at the Freie Universität Berlin create the image products that are published monthly.
The German space industry implements a DLR concept for mapping Mars
- HRSC, which was developed by DLR in conjunction with German industry, represented, at the time, a completely new camera concept that had never previously been used for planetary mapping. Its unique optics – an Apo-Tessar telescope built by Jena-Optronik GmbH – illuminate nine line sensors positioned transverse to the direction of flight that, due to the forward motion of the orbiter, image the same strip of the Martian surface – like a scanner – working line-by-line, one after the other. In doing so, each sensor images the same area on the surface from a different angle. Back on Earth, the four stereo image strips and the nadir channel, which is oriented perpendicular to Mars and provides the highest image resolution at 10 to 12 m/pixel, are used to create 3D models of the planet's surface. The remaining four of the nine line sensors are equipped with special color filters for acquiring multispectral data. The focal plane with the nine sensors forms the heart of the camera and was developed by DLR. Lewicki Microelectronic GmbH built the camera's electronics. Dornier (later Astrium and now Airbus Defence and Space) in Friedrichshafen assembled the complete instrument. The camera system was originally developed for use on the Russian Mars 96 mission, but it was lost shortly after launch on 17 November 1996. The flight spare camera, which is of identical construction, was then used on Mars Express instead – after the incorporation of a number of improvements.
• 10 January 2019: ESA’s Mars Express entered orbit around the Red Planet on 25 December 2003. The spacecraft began returning the first images from orbit using its HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) just a couple of weeks later, and over the course of its fifteen year history has captured thousands of images covering the globe. 20)
Figure 44: This video compilation highlights some of the stunning scenes revealed by this long-lived mission. From breathtaking horizon-to-horizon views to the close-up details of ice- and dune-filled craters, and from the polar ice caps and water-carved valleys to ancient volcanoes and plunging canyons, Mars Express has traced billions of years of geological history and evolution [video credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO), Published on 10 January 2019]
• 20 December 2018: The image of Figure 45 shows what appears to be a large patch of fresh, untrodden snow – a dream for any lover of the holiday season. However, it’s a little too distant for a last-minute winter getaway: this feature, known as Korolev crater, is found on Mars, and is shown here in beautiful detail as seen by Mars Express. 21) 22)
- ESA’s Mars Express mission launched on 2 June 2003, and reached Mars six months later. The satellite fired its main engine and entered orbit around the Red Planet on 25 December, making this month the 15-year anniversary of the spacecraft’s orbit insertion and the beginning of its science program.
- These images are an excellent celebration of such a milestone. Taken by the Mars Express HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera), this view of Korolev crater comprises five different ‘strips’ that have been combined to form a single image, with each strip gathered over a different orbit. The crater is also shown in perspective, context, and topographic views, all of which offer a more complete view of the terrain in and around the crater.
- The Korolev crater is 82 km across and found in the northern lowlands of Mars, just south of a large patch of dune-filled terrain that encircles part of the planet’s northern polar cap (known as Olympia Undae). It is an especially well-preserved example of a martian crater and is filled not by snow but ice, with its center hosting a mound of water ice some 1.8 km thick all year round.
- This ever-icy presence is due to an interesting phenomenon known as a ‘cold trap’, which occurs as the name suggests. The crater’s floor is deep, lying some two km vertically beneath its rim.
Figure 45: Korolev crater in context: This image shows the landscape in and around Korolev crater, an 82 km across feature found in the northern lowlands of Mars. The region outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express HRSC over orbits 18042 (captured on 4 April 2018), 5726, 5692, 5654, and 1412. The other white boxes indicate the data gathered by Mars Express over each individual orbit. The blue hues across the frame represent the elevation of the terrain, as indicated by the bar at the bottom (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
- The very deepest parts of Korolev crater, those containing ice, act as a natural cold trap: the air moving over the deposit of ice cools down and sinks, creating a layer of cold air that sits directly above the ice itself.
- Behaving as a shield, this layer helps the ice remain stable and stops it from heating up and disappearing. Air is a poor conductor of heat, exacerbating this effect and keeping Korolev crater permanently icy.
- The crater is named after chief rocket engineer and spacecraft designer Sergei Korolev (1907-1966), dubbed the father of Soviet space technology. Korolev worked on a number of well-known missions including the Sputnik program – the first artificial satellites ever sent into orbit around the Earth, in 1957 and the years following, the Vostok and Vokshod programs of human space exploration (Vostok being the spacecraft that carried the first ever human, Yuri Gagarin, into space in 1961) as well as the first interplanetary missions to the Moon, Mars, and Venus. He also worked on a number of rockets that were the precursors to the successful Soyuz launcher – still the workhorses of the Russian space program, and used for both crewed and robotic flights.
Figure 46: Plan view of Korolev crater. This plan mosaic comprises five different observational strips that have been combined to form a single image, gathered over orbits 18042 (captured on 4 April 2018), 5726, 5692, 5654, and 1412. It covers a region centered at 165º E, 73º N, and has a resolution of ~21 m/pixel. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the HRSC. The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- The region of Mars has also been of interest to other missions, including ESA’s ExoMars program, which aims to establish if life ever existed on Mars. The CaSSIS (Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System) instrument aboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which began operating at Mars on 28 April 2018, also snapped a beautiful view of part of Korolev crater – this was one of the very first images the spacecraft sent back to Earth after arriving at our neighboring planet. CaSSIS imaged a 40 km long chunk of the crater’s northern rim, neatly showcasing its intriguing shape and structure, and its bright icy deposits.
Figure 47: Topography of the Korolev crater. This color-coded topographic view shows the relative heights of the terrain in and around the Korolev crater, an ice-filled crater in the northern lowlands of Mars. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher-altitude regions show up in whites, browns, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. The crater’s thick deposit of ice can be seen at the center of the frame. This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. It comprises data obtained by the HRSC on Mars Express over orbits 18042 (captured on 4 April 2018), 5726, 5692, 5654, and 1412.It covers a region centered at 165º E, 73º N, and has a resolution of ~ 21 m/pixel (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• 25 November 2018: At just before 21 hours CET (Central European Time) on 26 November, Mars will receive a new visitor: NASA’s InSight lander. InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will be the first Mars mission dedicated to studying the planet’s interior, including sensing Mars quakes. Learning about the interior of the planet will inform scientists about the early formation of the rocky planets in our own Solar System, as well as the evolution of exoplanets orbiting other stars. 23)
Figure 48: Global view from Mars Express of the InSight landing site on Elysium Planitia on Mars. InSight will target a landing site centered at 4.5ºN/135.9ºE, about 600 km from Gale Crater, the region that NASA’s Curiosity rover is exploring (image credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Since InSight’s study is focused on sensing the planet’s interior, surface geology is not such an important factor in deciding the landing site as it is for other missions. Therefore, it is targeting a flat, stable surface in the Elysium Planitia region, which is captured in this wide field view from ESA’s Mars Express Visual Monitoring Camera taken on 29 February 2016.
- In the image of Figure 48, Elysium Planitia is located roughly between the dark features at the bottom right (which includes Gale Crater), and the brighter arc-shaped feature above, to the right of the center of the image, which is the location of volcano Elysium Mons. The north polar ice cap is seen at the top of the image.
- ESA has already been supporting InSight’s mission with its ground station network throughout the cruise to Mars, following the mission’s launch in May 2018. The joint ESA-Roscosmos Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) of the ExoMars mission, which arrived at Mars in October 2016, is ready to support data relay from InSight several times per day once it has landed safely, as required. Mars Express will also be prepared to support, on NASA’s request, ad hoc relay contacts with InSight in case of emergency needs.
- TGO will also act as a data relay for the ExoMars rover mission in 2021, for which the landing site was recommended earlier this month as Oxia Planum. A region that is thought to have hosted vast volumes of water in the past, it is an ideal location to search for clues that may help reveal the presence of past life on Mars.
- NASA also just announced the landing site for its Mars 2020 rover, which is set to explore an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. Moreover, the rover will collect rock and soil samples and store them in a cache on the planet's surface. NASA and ESA are studying future mission concepts to retrieve the samples and return them to Earth, setting the stage for the next decade of Mars exploration.
• 22 November 2018: ESA’s Mars Express has imaged an intriguing part of the Red Planet’s surface: a rocky, fragmented, furrowed escarpment lying at the boundary of the northern and southern hemisphere. 24)
Figure 49: This perspective view shows Nili Fossae, an escarpment sitting between the northern lowlands (lower right) and southern highlands (upper left) of Mars (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Legend to Figure 49: This oblique perspective was generated using data from ESA’s Mars Express HRSC. This scene is part of a region imaged during Mars Express orbit 17916 on 26 February 2018, with the gathered data combined to form a detailed mosaic. The image covers a part of the martian surface centered on 78°E, 28°N. This view looks across the feature from south to north.
- This region is an impressive example of past activity on the planet and shows signs of where flowing wind, water and ice once moved material from place to place, carving out distinctive patterns and landforms as it did so.
- Mars is a planet of two halves. In places, the northern hemisphere of the planet sits a full few kilometers lower than the southern; this clear topographic split is known as the martian dichotomy, and is an especially distinctive feature on the Red Planet’s surface.
Figure 50: Nili Fossae in context: Nili Fossae, an escarpment sitting between the northern lowlands and southern highlands of Mars, shown in a wider context. The region outlined by the larger white box indicates the whole area imaged during ESA’s Mars Express orbit 17916, while the smaller box shows the area displayed in this image release. In this context image, north is up (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
- Northern Mars also displays large areas of smooth land, whereas the planet’s southern regions are heavily pockmarked and scattered with craters. This is thought to be the result of past volcanic activity, which has resurfaced parts of Mars to create smooth plains in the north – and left other regions ancient and untouched.
- The star of this Mars Express image, a furrowed, rock-filled escarpment known as Nili Fossae, sits at the boundary of this north-south divide. This region is filled with rocky valleys, small hills, and clusters of flat-topped landforms (known as mesas in geological terms), with some chunks of crustal rock appearing to be depressed down into the surface creating a number of ditch-like features known as graben.
Figure 51: This color view shows the landscape around Nili Fossae, an escarpment sitting between the northern lowlands and southern highlands of Mars. It was created using data from the nadir channel of the HRSC on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, the field of view which is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, and the camera’s color channels. The data were acquired during spacecraft orbit 17916. The ground resolution is about 18 m/pixel and the images cover a part of the martian surface centered on 78ºE, 28ºN. North is to the right. (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- As with much of the surrounding environment, and despite Mars’ reputation as a dry, arid world today, water is believed to have played a key role in sculpting Nili Fossae via ongoing erosion. In addition to visual cues, signs of past interaction with water have been spotted in the western (upper) part of this image – instruments such as Mars Express’ OMEGA spectrometer have spotted clay minerals here, which are key indicators that water was once present.
- The elevation of Nili Fossae and surroundings, shown in the topographic view (Figure 52), is somewhat varied; regions to the left and lower left (south) sit higher than those to the other side of the frame (north), illustrating the aforementioned dichotomy. This higher-altitude terrain appears to consist mostly of rocky plateaus, while lower terrain comprises smaller rocks, mesas, hills, and more, with the two sections roughly separated by erosion channels and valleys.
- This split is thought to be the result of material moving around on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago. Similar to glaciers on Earth, flows of water and ice cut through the martian terrain and slowly sculpted and eroded it over time, also carrying material along with them. In the case of Nili Fossae, this was carried from higher areas to lower ones, with chunks of resistant rock and hardy material remaining largely intact but shifting downslope to form the mesas and landforms seen today.
Figure 52: This image shows the relative heights of the landscape in and around Nili Fossae, an escarpment sitting between the northern lowlands and southern highlands of Mars. The lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher-altitude regions show up in whites, browns, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Legend to Figure 52: The color-coded topographic view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. It comprises data obtained by the HRSC on ESA’s Mars Express during spacecraft orbit 17916. The ground resolution is about 18 m/pixel and the images cover a part of the martian surface centered on 78°E, 28°N. North is to the right.
Figure 53: This image shows Nil Fossae, an escarpment sitting between the northern lowlands and southern highlands of Mars, in 3D when viewed using red-green or red-blue glasses. This anaglyph was derived from data obtained by the nadir channel and one stereo channel of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA’s Mars Express during spacecraft orbit 17916. It covers a part of the martian surface centered on 78ºE, 28ºN. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- The shapes and structures scattered throughout this image are thought to have been shaped over time by flows of not only water and ice, but also wind. Examples can be seen in this image in patches of the surface that appear to be notably dark against the ochre background, as if smudged with charcoal or ink. These are areas of darker volcanic sand, which have been transported and deposited by present-day martian winds. Wind moves sand and dust around often on Mars’ surface, creating rippling dune fields across the planet and forming multi-colored, patchy terrain like Nili Fossae.
- ESA’s Mars Express was launched in 2003. As well as producing striking views of the martian surface such as this, the mission has shed light on many of the planet’s biggest mysteries – and helped to build the picture of Mars as a planet that was once warmer, wetter and potentially habitable.
Table 3: Extended life for ESA's science missions 25)
• 26 October 2018: The surface of Mars may appear to be perpetually still, but its many features are ever-changing – as represented in this Mars Express view of the severely eroded Greeley impact crater. 26)
- Greeley crater, named for the renowned planetary scientist Ronald Greeley, is located in one of the most ancient parts of Mars: a section of the planet’s southern highlands named Noachis Terra.
- This region is thought to be some four billion years old, and is thus home to many features that formed in the very earliest days of the Solar System. Many craters have formed, changed, and eroded away in Noachis Terra, and Greeley crater is no exception.
- The subject of these Mars Express images sits between two huge, deep impact basin plains, Argyre and Hellas, and is a great example of a very old crater that has endured significant erosion over time.
- Wind, water, ice, and subsequent impacts have all played a part in wearing down the once-fresh structure of the crater. They have smoothed away and removed its walls and rims, erased any characteristic patterns in the nearby landscape that may have formed alongside the crater (such as ‘ejecta’, or rays of material flung out from an impact site), and infilled and flattened out its floor.
- This floor is covered with a number of smaller impact pits and pockmarks that have occurred since Greeley crater’s formation – another clear indication of the crater’s immense age. With a depth of only 1.5 km Greeley crater is actually relatively shallow for a martian crater, making it somewhat difficult to pick out from the surrounding terrain.
Figure 54: The Greeley crater is a degraded impact crater in the Southern Highlands of Mars. The region outlined by the larger white box indicates the area imaged over 16 Mars Express orbits (0430, 1910, 1932, 2412, 2467, 2478, 4306, 4317, 4328, 6556, 8613, 8620, 8708, 12835, 14719, 16778). In this context image, north is up (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team) 27)
Figure 55: This image shows the landscape in and around Greeley crater, a degraded impact crater in the southern highlands of Mars. This color image was created using data from the nadir channel, the field of view which is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, and the camera’s color channels (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) 28)
Legend to Figure 55: This plan view is a mosaic of data acquired by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express over 16 of the spacecraft’s orbits (0430, 1910, 1932, 2412, 2467, 2478, 4306, 4317, 4328, 6556, 8613, 8620, 8708, 12835, 14719, 16778). The ground resolution is about 100 m/pixel and the images cover a part of the martian surface ranging from 2°W to 9°E / 31.5° to 43.5°S. North is up.
- Accompanying views of the crater show it in a wider context on Mars, color-coded by topography – highlighting the relative depths of the crater, its broken-down wall, smaller superimposed craters, and other features throughout the region – and also via an oblique perspective, which looks across the crater towards the south-west. Together, these images well-characterize the crater and its environment, and offer an intriguing insight into this ancient region on our planetary neighbor.
- Greeley crater earned its moniker following a proposal by the International Astronomical Union in 2015 to name the crater after distinguished planetary scientist Ronald Greeley. Greeley passed away on 27 October 2011. Ronald Greeley's passion was Mars science. Not only was he a co-investigator for the Mars Express HRSC, but he was also involved in other Mars missions, such as Mariner, Viking, Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. His career in planetary research began in 1967 at NASA AMES Research Center, where he studied volcanic landforms and lava tubes on Earth and the Moon. He later worked with planetary mission data acquired by Galileo for Jupiter, Magellan for Venus, and Voyager 2 for Uranus and Neptune. He was also interested in surface features and processes that occur due to the effects of wind on other planets. In 1977 he became Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, where he created the Planetary Aeolian Laboratory, which is still running to this day.
- Alongside significant work in planetary science spanning not only Mars and related missions but also lunar research and missions to Venus, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, Greeley was a Regents’ Professor of planetary geology at Arizona State University from 1977 to 2011, and co-investigator of the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) – the instrument that gathered the data used in these images.
Figure 56: This image shows the relative heights of the landscape in and around Greeley crater, a degraded impact crater in the Southern Highlands of Mars. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher-altitude regions show up in whites, browns, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. The color-coded topographic view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) 29)
Legend to Figure 56: This colored topographic view comprises data obtained by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express over 16 of the spacecraft’s orbits (0430, 1910, 1932, 2412, 2467, 2478, 4306, 4317, 4328, 6556, 8613, 8620, 8708, 12835, 14719, 16778). The ground resolution is about 100 m/pixel and the images cover a part of the martian surface ranging from 2°W to 9°E / 31.5° to 43.5°S. North is up.
• 25 October 2018: Since 13 September, ESA's Mars Express has been observing the evolution of an elongated cloud formation hovering in the vicinity of the 20 km-high Arsia Mons volcano, close to the planet's equator. 30)
- In spite of its location, this atmospheric feature is not linked to volcanic activity but is rather a water ice cloud driven by the influence of the volcano's leeward slope on the air flow – something that scientists call an orographic or lee cloud – and a regular phenomenon in this region.
- The cloud can be seen in this view taken on 10 October by the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) on Mars Express – which has imaged it hundreds of times over the past few weeks – as the white, elongated feature extending 1500 km westward of Arsia Mons. As a comparison, the cone-shaped volcano has a diameter of about 250 km.
Figure 57: Cloud formation near Arsia Mons (image credit: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Mars just experienced its northern hemisphere winter solstice on 16 October. In the months leading up to the solstice, most cloud activity disappears over big volcanoes like Arsia Mons; its summit is covered with clouds throughout the rest of the martian year.
- However, a seasonally recurrent water ice cloud, like the one shown in this image, is known to form along the southwest flank of this volcano – it was previously observed by Mars Express and other missions in 2009, 2012 and 2015.
- The cloud's appearance varies throughout the martian day, growing in length during local morning downwind of the volcano, almost parallel to the equator, and reaching such an impressive size that could make it visible even to telescopes on Earth.
- The formation of water ice clouds is sensitive to the amount of dust present in the atmosphere. These images, obtained after the major dust storm that engulfed the entire planet in June and July, will provide important information on the effect of dust on the cloud development and on its variability throughout the year.
- The elongated cloud hovering near Arsia Mons this year was also observed with the visible and near-infrared mapping spectrometer, OMEGA, and the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on Mars Express, providing scientists with a variety of different data to study this phenomenon.
Figure 58: Left: Cloud on 21 September 2018 observed by HRSC (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO); Right: Cloud on 17 September 2018 observed by OMEGA (image credit: ESA/CNES/CNRS/IAS)
• 25 July 2018: Radar data collected by ESA's Mars Express point to a pond of liquid water buried under layers of ice and dust in the south polar region of Mars. 31)
- Evidence for the Red Planet's watery past is prevalent across its surface in the form of vast dried-out river valley networks and gigantic outflow channels clearly imaged by orbiting spacecraft. Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water.
- But the climate has changed significantly over the course of the planet's 4.6 billion year history and liquid water cannot exist on the surface today, so scientists are looking underground. Early results from the 15-year old Mars Express spacecraft already found that water-ice exists at the planet's poles and is also buried in layers interspersed with dust.
- The presence of liquid water at the base of the polar ice caps has long been suspected; after all, from studies on Earth, it is well known that the melting point of water decreases under the pressure of an overlying glacier. Moreover, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of water and keep the water liquid even at below-freezing temperatures.
- But until now evidence from the MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) instrument the first radar sounder ever to orbit another planet, remained inconclusive.
- It has taken the persistence of scientists working with this subsurface-probing instrument to develop new techniques in order to collect as much high-resolution data as possible to confirm their exciting conclusion.
- Ground-penetrating radar uses the method of sending radar pulses towards the surface and timing how long it takes for them to be reflected back to the spacecraft, and with what strength. The properties of the material that lies between influences the returned signal, which can be used to map the subsurface topography.
Figure 59: ESA's Mars Express has used radar signals bounced through underground layers of ice to identify a pond of water buried below the surface. This image shows an example radar profile for one of 29 orbits over the 200 x 200 km study region in the south polar region of Mars. The bright horizontal feature at the top corresponds to the icy surface of Mars. Layers of the south polar layered deposits – layers of ice and dust – are seen to a depth of about 1.5 km. Below is a base layer that in some areas is even much brighter than the surface reflections, while in other places is rather diffuse. The brightest reflections from the base layer – close to the center of this image – are centered around 193º/81ºS in all intersecting orbits, outlining a well-defined, 20 km wide subsurface anomaly that is interpreted as a pond of liquid water (image credit:ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/University of Rome)
- The radar investigation shows that south polar region of Mars is made of many layers of ice and dust down to a depth of about 1.5 km in the 200 km-wide area analyzed in this study. A particularly bright radar reflection underneath the layered deposits is identified within a 20 km-wide zone.
- Analyzing the properties of the reflected radar signals and considering the composition of the layered deposits and expected temperature profile below the surface, the scientists interpret the bright feature as an interface between the ice and a stable body of liquid water, which could be laden with salty, saturated sediments. For MARSIS to be able to detect such a patch of water, it would need to be at least several tens of centimeters thick.
- "This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments," says Roberto Orosei, principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper published in the journal Science today. ”This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered." 32)
- "We'd seen hints of interesting subsurface features for years but we couldn't reproduce the result from orbit to orbit, because the sampling rates and resolution of our data was previously too low," adds Andrea Cicchetti, MARSIS operations manager and a co-author on the new paper. "We had to come up with a new operating mode to bypass some onboard processing and trigger a higher sampling rate and thus improve the resolution of the footprint of our dataset: now we see things that simply were not possible before."
Figure 60: Water detection under the south pole of Mars (image credit: Context map: NASA/Viking; THEMIS background: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University; MARSIS data: ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/Univ. Rome; R. Orosei et al 2018)
- The finding is somewhat reminiscent of Lake Vostok, discovered some 4 km below the ice in Antarctica on Earth. Some forms of microbial life are known to thrive in Earth's subglacial environments, but could underground pockets of salty, sediment-rich liquid water on Mars also provide a suitable habitat, either now or in the past? Whether life has ever existed on Mars remains an open question, and is one that Mars missions, including the current European-Russian ExoMars orbiter and future rover, will continue to explore.
- "The long duration of Mars Express, and the exhausting effort made by the radar team to overcome many analytical challenges, enabled this much-awaited result, demonstrating that the mission and its payload still have a great science potential," says Dmitri Titov, ESA's Mars Express project scientist. "This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbor planet and its habitability."
• 1 June 2018: Fifteen years ago, ESA’s Mars Express was launched to investigate the Red Planet. To mark this milestone comes a striking view of Mars from horizon to horizon, showcasing one of the most intriguing parts of the martian surface. 33)
- On 2 June 2003, the Mars Express spacecraft lifted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on a journey to explore our red-hued neighboring planet. In the 15 years since, it has become one of the most successful missions ever sent to Mars, as demonstrated by this image of the region known as the Tharsis province, shown here in its full glory.
- Mammoth volcanoes, sweeping canyons, fractured ground: Tharsis is one of the most geologically interesting and oft-explored parts of the planet’s surface. Once an incredibly active region, displaying both volcanism and the shifting crustal plates of tectonics, it hosts most of the planet’s colossal volcanoes – the largest in the Solar System.
Figure 61: This view, taken by the HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) aboard Mars Express in October 2017, shows Tharsis in all its glory (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Legend to Figure 61: It sweeps from the planet’s upper horizon — marked by the faint blue haze at the top of the frame — down across a web of pale fissures named Noctis Labyrinthus (a part of Valles Marineris stretching to the upper left corner of the image), Ascraeus and Pavonis Mons (two of Tharsis’ four great volcanoes at more than 20 km high), and finishes at the planet’s northern polar ice cap (in this perspective, North is to the lower left).
- Sitting near Mars’ equator, Tharsis covers roughly a quarter of the martian surface and is thought to have a played an important role in the planet’s history. It straddles the boundary between Mars’ southern highlands and northern lowlands.
- Elevation on Mars is defined relative to where the gravity is the same as the average at the martian equator. This serves as a type of ‘sea-level’, even though there are no seas.
- Most of Tharsis is higher than average, at between 2 and 10 km high. The province likely formed as mushroom-shaped plumes of molten rock (magma) swelled up beneath the viscous surface over time, creating seeping flows, magma chambers, and large, rocky provinces – like Tharsis – and feeding ongoing volcanism from below.
Figure 62: This map is based on data from NASA’s Viking mission. It shows the slice of Mars captured by the HRSC aboard ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft to celebrate the mission’s 15th anniversary: the intriguing and once-active Tharsis province. Included in this labelled view is the extensive canyon system of Valles Marineris, the web-like system of fissures comprising Noctis Labyrinthus, four volcanoes, and the northern polar cap (image credit: NASA/Viking, FU Berlin) 34)
- Tharsis is also connected to the formation of the famous Valles Marineris, which is some four times longer and deeper than the Great Canyon in Arizona, USA, and the most extensive canyon system discovered in the Solar System. This is partly visible as the dark tendrils to the upper left of the image.
- As magma swelled up beneath the crust to create the Tharsis province, the tension caused some areas to rupture and fracture. Molten rock then flooded these fractures and destabilized and separated regions of the crust yet further, resulting in both the wide, substantial troughs and fissures that comprise modern-day Valles Marineris, and the web-like Noctis Labyrinthus that sits at the canyon system’s western end.
- Captured in the new view are volcanoes Pavonis Mons (top right), Ascraeus Mons (just below), Alba Mons (to the bottom left), and a small sliver of Olympus Mons (to the lower right, continuing out of frame) in caramel hues; a view of the region with labels is provided here. The location of this slice of Mars’ surface is also shown in a context map of the planet and in a topographic context.
Figure 63: This context map is based on data from the MOLA (Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter) experiment onboard NASA’s MGS (Mars Global Surveyor) mission. It shows the slice of Mars captured by the HRSC aboard ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft to celebrate the mission’s 15th anniversary: the intriguing and once-active Tharsis province (image credit: NASA/MGS/MOLA Science Team, FU Berlin)
Legend to Figure 63: Included in this labelled view is the extensive canyon system of Valles Marineris, the web-like system of fissures comprising Noctis Labyrinthus, two out of four volcanoes, the north pole, and the so-called Martian dichotomy: the difference in altitude between the northern and southern regions of Mars. Areas at higher altitudes are shown in red-orange tones, while those at lower ones are displayed in blue-greens (as indicated by the scale to the bottom left).
• 11 April 2018: Every so often, your smartphone or tablet receives new software to improve its functionality and extend its life. Now, ESA’s Mars Express is getting a fresh install, delivered across over 150 million km of space. 35)
- With nearly 15 years in orbit, Mars Express – one of the most successful interplanetary missions ever – is on track to keep gathering critical science data for many more years thanks to a fresh software installation developed by the mission teams at ESA.
- The new software is designed to fix a problem that anyone still using a five-year-old laptop knows well: after years of intense usage, some components simply start to wear out.
- The spacecraft arrived at Mars in December 2003, on what was planned to be a two-year mission. It has gone on to spend more than 14 years gathering a wealth of data from the Red Planet, taking high-resolution images of much of the surface, detecting minerals on the surface that form only in the presence of water, detecting hints of methane in the atmosphere and conducting close flybys of the enigmatic moon, Phobos.
- Today, Mars Express is in good shape, with only some minor degradation in performance, but its gyroscopes are close to failing.
- These six gyros measure how much Mars Express rotates about any of its three axes. Together with the spacecraft’s two startrackers, they determine its orientation in space. This is critical for pointing its large parabolic radio antenna towards Earth and to aim its instruments – like the high-resolution stereo camera – at Mars.
- Startrackers are simple, point-and-shoot cameras that capture images of the background star field and, with some clever processing, are used to determine the craft’s orientation in space every few seconds.
- The rotation information from the gyros fills in the information between these snapshots and also when the trackers lose track of the stars – which can last for minutes or even hours.
- “After looking at variations in the intensity of the gyros’ internal lasers, we realized last year that, with our current usage, four of the six gyros were trending towards failure,” says spacecraft operations manager James Godfrey. “Mars Express was never designed to fly without its gyros continuously available, so we could foresee a certain end to the mission sometime between January and June 2019.”
- Engineers knew, however, from long experience with similar gyros on previous missions, including Rosetta and ERS-2, that it might be possible to fly the mission primarily using its startrackers, with the gyros only being switched on occasionally, to extend their lives.
- Hacking 15 year-old code: “Flying on startrackers with the gyros mostly switched off meant that a significant portion of the 15 year-old software on Mars Express would have to be rewritten, and this would be a major challenge,” says operations engineer Simon Wood.
- While the spacecraft’s builder provided great assistance, it was mostly up to the teams at ESA to open the code, rewrite the software, test it and prepare it for upload as soon as possible.
- “We were also helped by being able to take code flown on Rosetta and transplant it into the Mars Express guidance software,” adds Simon.
- A massive, multi-month effort followed, involving teams from across the Agency working to develop the new software that would enable Mars Express to keep flying. This also meant significant changes in instrument science planning.
- “We didn’t know if such a massive revision was possible – it hadn’t been done before, especially as we would be in a race against time to complete it. But faced with the almost-certain end of mission, what began as wild speculation during a tea break one afternoon last summer has led to the full rewrite now being ready to send up.”
- The new software was finalized earlier this year, and has undergone meticulous testing to ensure it will work as intended.
- Go/No-Go: The effort came to fruition yesterday, when the mission team met for a critical go/no-go meeting with the ESA managers to get final approval to activate the new software.
- The new code was actually uploaded to an area of spare memory on Sunday, but just like when your phone or tablet gets a software upgrade, mission controllers will have to shut Mars Express down and trigger a reboot to start running the new code, a critical step set for 16 April.
- If all goes as expected, the mission teams will then spend about two weeks testing and reconfiguring the spacecraft to ensure everything is working as it should before resuming normal science operations.
- “Similar, but much smaller fixes, have been developed in the past for other missions with old gyros, such as Rosetta, but this is certainly the most complex and extensive software rewrite we’ve done in recent memory,” says mission manager Patrick Martin. “Thanks to the skill of ESA’s teams, Mars Express will fly well into the 2020s, depending on fuel supply, and continue delivering excellent science for many years yet. I look forward to seeing continued joint science campaigns between Mars Express and other Mars missions like ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter and incoming rover missions.”
- Developed by experts at the observatories of Paris Sud (OSUPS) and Lyon (OSUL), PSUP has modules for filtering, processing, and downloading data (Mars System Information, or MarsSI), and for visualizing these data in 3D–including global mineralogical maps, geomorphologic maps, and various other catalogues (Mars Visu).
Figure 64: Screenshot of the PSUP tool. This image shows a view of Mars as seen via Mars Visu. The colored layer represents Mars' surface emissivity at a wavelength of 5µm: in other words, how efficiently any given part of the planetary surface is emitting infrared radiation (yellow-red being higher and blue-purple lower, as indicated by the key in the bottom right). The data comprising this layer are from OMEGA, the Near-Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer aboard Mars Express. Mostly obscured beneath this layer, only visible as a few slashes across the planet's face, is a background covering of Viking data provided by Mars Dataset (image credit:ESA/PSUP (OSUPS/OSUL)
• 04 November 2011: The volcanoes on Mars are true giants. As well as being home to the largest volcano in our Solar System, the 24 km high Olympus Mons, and its three neighboring shield volcanoes Arsia, Pavonis and Ascraeus, there are a number of less-frequently observed volcano complexes on the Tharsis bulge near the Martian equator that also reach impressive heights. With a base measuring 155 x 125 km, the 8000 m Tharsis Tholus may only be a ‘mid-range’ volcano, but when measured against terrestrial standards, this volcano is truly gigantic. The HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) operated by DLR (German Aerospace Cente) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft acquired images of Tharsis Tholus over the course of several orbits, which have been combined to form a mosaic image with a resolution of 14 m/pixel. The images show an area located at 13º north and 268º east. 37) 38)
Figure 65: Perspective view from the north east to the summit of Tharsis Tholus (image credit: DLR, ESA)
- Just as on Earth, volcanoes on Mars played an important role in both its climatic history and the thermal evolution of its interior. Volcanic eruptions fed ‘fresh’ gases into the atmosphere, thereby affecting the density and composition of this gaseous envelope. Whether a water cycle existed on Mars or whether it once rained are some of the most exciting questions addressed by Mars exploration. Closely related to this is the question of whether conditions were ever favorable for the development of life on the now dry planet.
- A caldera two and a half kilometers deep and the size of Berlin: Tharsis Tholus differs from many of the other volcanoes on Mars in that its edifice has undergone extensive modification. The complex has not developed in the usual way, for example as a cone or a shield surrounding the volcanic center; instead, it shows signs of substantial deformation. At least two major collapses on the western and eastern flanks have taken place in the course of its four billion year history. Evidence of these events is still visible, taking the form of the steep flanks some several kilometers in height, as well as concentric and ring faults.
- The main feature of Tharsis Tholus is, however, the size of its central caldera. This slightly elongated collapse crater at the summit of the volcano, measuring roughly 32 x 34 km, extends over an area almost as large as Berlin and the base is as much as 2.7 km below the rim. The caldera may have formed when a shallow magma chamber under the volcano emptied, primarily through volcanic eruptions – during which the magma emerged at the surface in the form of lava. This emptying process caused a large cavity to form inside the volcano. As lava accumulated over this cavity, there came a point when it could no longer support the additional weight and it collapsed, forming a depression known as a ‘collapse caldera’.
Figure 66: Alternate perspective of Tharsis Tholus. The volcano towers 8 km above the surrounding terrain with a base that stretches 155 x 125 km and a central caldera measuring 32 x 34 km. The image was created using a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) obtained from the HRSC on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft. Elevation data from the DTM is color coded: purple indicates the lowest lying regions and beige the highest. The scale is in meters. In these images, the relief has been exaggerated by a factor of three (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, Ref. 38)
- But the true size of Tharsis Tholus is concealed. As the nadir image shows, the volcano is surrounded by numerous solidified lava flows, hiding the original base of the volcano. Taking into account the number and massive extent of these lava flows, it is possible that Tharsis Tholus is ‘submerged’ in lava to a depth of several kilometers.
- The image data used to create the images shown here were acquired using the HRSC between 28 October and 13 November 2004 during orbits 0997, 1019, 1041 and 1052. The images were produced by the Department of Planetary Sciences and Remote Sensing in the Institute for Geological Sciences of the Freie Universität Berlin. The perspective views were computed from the HRSC stereo channels. The anaglyph was derived from one stereo channel and the nadir channel, which captures image data at the highest resolution of all the channels. The black-and-white detail image was acquired with the nadir channel. The false-color images are based on digital terrain models of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived.
- November 2011 – Mars in the spotlight: Mars continues to be one of the most important targets for planetary research. On 25 November, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, a lander carrying a rover named Curiosity, will be launched on its journey to the Red Planet. Curiosity is five times heavier than the two ‘veteran’ rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which have been exploring the Martian surface since 2004. Equipped with the most comprehensive and sophisticated suite of experiments, Curiosity will continue the quest to find evidence for the existence, past or present, of organic molecules on Mars.
- Even the Russian space program will again contribute to the exploration of Mars; on 5-8 November 2011 at 22:16 CET, the Phobos Grunt spacecraft will embark on its journey to Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons. Once it lands in 2013, the small lander will collect samples for roughly a year. The loaded return vehicle will then blast off from Phobos and arrive back at Earth in 2014. DLR is participating in this mission by developing digital terrain models derived from HRSC image data, to support the Russians in the selection of the landing sites. Though manned missions to Mars are in the distant future, the Mars500 long-term experiment will help with preparations. In this experiment, the subjects embarked on a 520-day virtual flight to Mars inside a simulated spaceship. This journey will come to an end on 4 November, when they will ‘return to Earth’.
- The HRSC experiment on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission is led by the Principal Investigator (PI) Prof. Dr Gerhard Neukum, who was also responsible for the technical design of the camera. The science team for the experiment consists of 40 co-investigators from 33 institutions and 10 nations. The camera was developed at DLR under the leadership of the PI and it was built in cooperation with industrial partners EADS Astrium, Lewicki Microelectronic GmbH and Jena Optronik GmbH. The instrument is operated by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, through ESA/ESOC. The systematic processing of the HRSC image data is carried out at DLR. The scenes shown here were processed by the PI-group at the Institute for Geological Sciences of the Freie Universität Berlin.
• In 2004, a year after Europe’s first mission to Mars was launched, the flight dynamics team at ESA’s operations center encountered a serious problem. New computer models showed a worrying fate for the Mars Express spacecraft if mission controllers continued with their plans to deploy its giant MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) radar. 39)
Figure 67: Artist's impression of Mars Express. The background is based on an actual image of Mars taken by the spacecraft's HRSC (image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Mars: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- This extremely sensitive radar instrument spans 40 meters across once fully extended, making it longer than a Space Shuttle orbiter and was built with the direct intention of finding water beneath Mars’ surface. By sending out a series of chips between 1.8 and 5.0 Mhz in ‘subsurface’ mode would scour the red planet for any signs of water anywhere down to a depth of a few kilometers. A secondary ‘ionosphere’ mode at 0.1 to 5.4 Mhz surveyed the electrical conductivity of the Martian upper atmosphere.
- Two ‘radar booms’, 20 m long hollow cylinders, 2.5 cm in diameter, and one 7 m boom, were folded up in a box like a concertina. Once the box was opened, all of the stored elastic energy from the glass fiber booms would be released, a little like a jack-in-the-box, and they would lock into a straight line.
- New and updated computer models, however, showed that these long rods would swing back and forth upon release with an even greater amplitude than previously thought, potentially coming into close contact with the delicate parts of the Mars Express body.
Deployment was postponed:
Figure 68: Artist’s impression of MARSIS Boom 1 deployed (image credit: ESA)
- Plans were made to get the spacecraft in a ‘robust’ mode before the deployment of each boom and while the glass fiber cylinders were extended. After each deployment the control team would conduct a full assessment of the spacecraft, taking up to a few days, before moving onto the next phase.
- The first deployment began on 4 May 2005 with one of the two 20 m ‘dipole’ booms, and flight controllers at ESA’s operations center quickly realized something wasn’t quite right. 12 out of 13 of the boom segments had ‘snapped’ into place, but one, possibly number 10, was not in position.
Deployment of the second and third booms was postponed
- Further analysis showed that prolonged storage in the cold conditions of outer space had affected the fiberglass and Kevlar material of the boom. What could be done to heat it up?
Figure 69: MARSIS boom 2 deployment begins (image credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Enter the Sun: Mission teams decided to swing the 680 kg spacecraft to a position that would allow the Sun to heat the cold side of the boom. It was hoped that as the cold side expanded in the heat, the unlocked segment would be forced into place.
- One hour later, as contact was reestablished at 04:50 CET on 11 May, detailed analysis showed all segments had successfully locked in place and Boom 1 was successfully deployed!
- Following the rollercoaster rollout of the first antenna, flight controllers spent some time mulling over the events. A full investigation ensued, lessons were learnt, and plans were put in place to prevent the same irregularity from taking place in the next two deployments.
- By 14 June 2005, operators felt confident that they, and Mars Express, were ready to deploy the second boom. At 13:30 CEST the commands were sent.
- This time, Mars Express was set into a slow rotation to last 30 minutes during and after the release of the second 20 m boom. The rotation was planned so that all of the boom’s hinges would be properly heated by the Sun before, during, and after deployment.
- Just three hours later and the first signs of success reached ground control, showing that Mars Express had properly re-oriented itself and was pointing towards Earth, transmitting data.
- The data confirmed that the spacecraft was working with two fully and correctly deployed booms, and their deployment had not caused any damage to the spacecraft.
- Not long after, the third boom was deployed, and the full MARSIS setup was complete on Mars Express.
Figure 70: MARSIS fully deployed (image credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Let the science begin
- Just four months later, and ESA was reporting on the radar’s activities. MARSIS radar scientists were collecting data about a highly electrically conducting layer – surveyed in sunlight. They were also continuing the laborious analysis of data in the search for any possible signs of underground water, in a frozen or liquid state.
- Radar science is based on the detection of radio waves, reflected at the boundaries between different materials. Each material interacts with light in a different way, so as the radio wave crosses the boundary between different layers of material, an echo is generated that carries a sort of ‘fingerprint’, providing information about the kind of material causing the reflection, including clues to its composition and physical state.
Figure 71: MARSIS prospecting for water (image credit: ESA)