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 maneuver 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)
• July 23, 2021: Long-term studies of ozone and water vapor in the atmosphere of Mars could lead to better understanding of atmospheric chemistry for the Earth. A new analysis of data from ESA's Mars Express mission has revealed that our knowledge of the way these atmospheric gases interact with each other is incomplete. 5)
- Using four martian years of observations from the SPICAM (Spectroscopy for the Investigation of the Characteristics of the Atmosphere of Mars) instrument, which corresponds to seven and a half Earth years, a team of researchers from Europe and Russia uncovered the gap in our knowledge when trying to reproduce their data with a global climate model of Mars.
Figure 5: Understanding ozone on Mars. Ozone is produced on Mars when carbon dioxide molecules are split apart by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Ozone can be split apart by hydrogen radicals, which are produced when water vapor is split apart by ultraviolet light. The fact that Mars’ atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide suggests that a global ozone signature is to be expected, except where there is water vapor. But, for a given amount of water vapor, Mars Express observes twice as much ozone as predicted by climate models. Perhaps the ozone destruction by hydrogen radicals is less efficient than expected, or ice clouds could absorb the hydrogen radicals before they have time to split apart the ozone (image credit: ESA)
- Ozone and water vapor do not make good atmospheric companions. The ozone (O3) is produced when molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2), which comprises 95% of the martian atmosphere, are split apart by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. In turn, the ozone can be split apart by molecules called hydrogen radicals (HOX), which contain an atom of hydrogen and one or more atoms of oxygen. The hydrogen radicals themselves are produced when water vapor is split apart by ultraviolet light.
- On Mars, since the carbon dioxide is ubiquitous, there should be a global signature of ozone – unless a particular region contains water vapor. In that circumstance, the water will be split into hydrogen radicals, which will react with the ozone molecule and pull it apart.
- Thus, wherever SPICAM detected water vapor, it should have seen a decrease in ozone. The more water vapor, the less ozone. The team investigated this inverse relationship, also known as an anticorrelation. They found that they could reproduce the general inverse nature of it with a climate model but not achieve the precise relationship. Instead, for a given amount of water vapor, the model produced only 50% of the ozone seen in the SPICAM data.
- “It suggests that the efficiency of ozone destruction is overstated in the computer simulations,” says Franck Lefèvre, of the Laboratoire atmosphères, milieux, observations spatiales (LATMOS), CNRS/Sorbonne Université, France, who led the study.
- At present, however, the reason for this over-estimation is not clear. Understanding the behavior of hydrogen radicals on Mars is essential. “It plays a key role in the atmospheric chemistry of Mars but also in the global composition of the planet,” says Franck.
Figure 6: Just like Earth has an ozone layer, so do Venus and Mars. In fact, Mars has three distinct layers, although they are much weaker than the one on Earth and vary greatly in location and with time. Ozone, a molecule containing three oxygen atoms – is a pollutant at ground level on Earth (it is the main ingredient of urban smog) but at higher altitudes it provides an essential protective layer against harmful solar ultraviolet light, which is why the ozone hole is so concerning. Plant life today plays a critical role in taking in carbon dioxide and replenishing our oxygen and ozone. But ozone is also found on Venus and Mars, where it is created by non-biological means. On these planets ozone is formed when sunlight breaks up carbon dioxide molecules, releasing oxygen atoms, which can sometimes re-combine into ozone molecules. Understanding the different ozone-forming processes on different planets will be important for studying the diversity of exoplanets, in case the combination of ozone with other atmospheric constituents is relevant from a biological perspective. - ESA has a fleet of upcoming exoplanet missions – Cheops, Plato and Ariel – that will each tackle a different aspect of exoplanet science. In particular, Ariel, the Atmospheric Remote-Sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey mission, will perform a chemical census of a large and diverse sample of exoplanets by analyzing their atmospheres in great detail. - ESA has demonstrated expertise in studying Mars from orbit, now we are looking to secure a safe landing, to rove across the surface and to drill underground to search for evidence of life. Our orbiters are already in place to provide data relay services for surface missions. The next logical step is to bring samples back to Earth, to provide access to Mars for scientists globally, and to better prepare for future human exploration of the Red Planet. - This set of infographics highlight’s ESA’s contribution to Mars exploration as we ramp up to the launch of our second ExoMars mission, and look beyond to completing a Mars Sample Return mission (image credit: ESA, S. Poletti)
- The chemical model used in this work was built specifically by Franck and colleagues to analyze Mars. It was based on a model of part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere; the mesosphere. Here, between roughly 40-80 km in altitude, the chemistry and conditions are broadly similar to those found in Mars’s atmosphere.
- Indeed, the discrepancy found in the models could have important repercussions for the way we simulate the Earth’s climate using atmospheric models. This is because the mesosphere on Earth contains part of the ozone layer, which will experience the same interactions with HOX as take place on Mars.
- “HOX chemistry is important for the global equilibrium of the Earth’s ozone layer,” says Franck.
- So, understanding what is happening in the atmosphere of Mars could benefit the precision with which we can perform climate simulations on Earth. And with so much data now available from SPICAM, the modelling has clearly shown that there is something we don’t understand.
- Could that something be the action of clouds?
- When Franck and colleagues introduced calculations for the way HOX is absorbed by the icy particles that make up clouds on Mars, they found that more ozone survived in their models. This is because HOX molecules were absorbed before they could pull apart the ozone. But this only partially explained their results.
- “It doesn't work in all the cases,” says Franck. And so the team are looking elsewhere too.
- One particular area for further study is measuring reaction rates at the low temperatures found in the martian atmosphere and Earth’s mesosphere. At present, these are not well known, and so could also be skewing the models.
- Now that the current work has highlighted in a quantitative way where the gaps lie in our knowledge, the team will collect more data using other UV instruments operating at Mars and continue their investigations and update the model.
- “With Mars Express, we have a completed the longest survey of the martian atmosphere to date, regardless of the mission. We started in 2004, and now have 17 years of data, which has led us to look at almost seven martian years in a row, including four martian years of combined ozone and water vapor measurements before the UV channel of SPICAM, which measured ozone, ceased operating near the end of 2014. This is unique in the story of planetary exploration,” adds Franck Montmessin, also from LATMOS, and the principal investigator of the SPICAM instrument.
- Building on the extraordinary dataset from Mars Express, new results are now coming in from ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been circling Mars since October 2016. It carries two instruments, ACS (Atmospheric Chemistry Suite) and NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery) that are analyzing the martian atmosphere. NASA’s Maven mission also carries ultraviolet equipment that monitors ozone abundance. So, the vital piece of information that finally unlocks this mystery could come at any time.
- The long-term monitoring of atmospheric parameters and their variations by Mars Express provides a unique data set with which to study the martian atmosphere as a complex dynamic system.
- “Maybe adding up all these years together will eventually hold the key to how the HOX really controls the martian atmosphere, benefiting our understanding of planetary atmospheres in general,” says Franck Montmessin. 6)
• June 28, 2021: Using data originally gathered for spacecraft ‘housekeeping’ aboard ESA’s Rosetta and Mars Express missions, scientists have revealed how intense bursts of high-energy radiation, known as cosmic rays, behave at Mars and throughout the inner Solar System. 7)
- Housekeeping data is gathered by most spacecraft and components, and is used by engineering teams to monitor spacecraft health and diagnose faults (by logging parameters such as component health and ‘on/off’ status, for example). Such data could be linked to scientifically interesting phenomena, and so represents a valuable science resource that remains mostly unexplored.
- Objects in space are regularly hit by charged particles that stream in from the wider Milky Way, including cosmic rays. Cosmic rays can cause electronic damage if they hit space hardware and threaten human health on crewed missions to Earth orbit, when astronauts are less protected from radiation by our planet’s atmosphere. The threat posed by cosmic rays will be even greater for crewed missions that will venture further into space, for example to the Moon and Mars.
- To keep tabs on spacecraft health, space missions log when cosmic rays hit an onboard computer and cause memory errors – something known as EDAC (Error Detection And Correction).
Figure 7: Using data originally gathered for spacecraft ‘housekeeping’ aboard ESA’s Rosetta and Mars Express missions, scientists have revealed how intense bursts of high-energy radiation, known as cosmic rays, behave at Mars and throughout the inner Solar System (image credit: ESA/Data based on Knutsen et al.,)
- “Mars Express has been collecting these measurements since launch. We accessed data collected since 2005, giving us an amazing 15-year dataset spanning almost the entire mission lifetime – a real rarity,” says Elise Wright Knutsen, lead author of the new study, formerly a trainee at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), and now at LATMOS/IPSL, France.
- A few factors influence the intensity of cosmic rays we see in the Solar System, including where we are in the Sun’s periodic 11-year activity cycle, and distance from the Sun. “We were able to explore the Sun-cosmic ray relationship in detail thanks to EDAC data from two prominent ESA missions: Mars Express and Rosetta,” says Elise. “This is the first time EDAC data has been used in this way – it’s been used before to explore short-term solar events, but never in the longer term.”
- Elise and colleagues used EDAC data from the two missions to characterize how cosmic ray behavior changed throughout our Sun’s cycle of activity at Mars (by comparing Mars Express EDAC data to corresponding data on sunspots and from Earth-based monitoring), and to reveal how the amount of cosmic rays detected in the inner Solar System varies with distance from the Sun (by comparing EDAC data from both Rosetta and Mars Express). Rosetta orbited around the Solar System for 10 years – at its farthest reaching beyond the orbit of Jupiter – before arriving at its target comet, collecting data over a wide range of distances from the Sun.
- “We found that cosmic rays behave very similarly with respect to the Sun at Mars as they do at Earth, and are strongly influenced by the solar cycle,” adds Elise. “As the Sun grows more active and hosts more sunspots, we see fewer cosmic rays, as our star deflects more of them. However, this ‘anti-correlation’ is seen around 5.5 months later – it isn’t immediate – and the reason for this time lag remains an intriguing open question.”
- Comparing the EDAC measurements from Mars Express and Rosetta also showed that cosmic ray counts increase by around 5% per ‘astronomical unit (AU)’, with one AU being the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
- In situ data, especially science data, is rare in much of the Solar System, and observations of the radiation around other planetary bodies are relatively sparse. Although spacecraft do not carry out routine science observations as they cruise through space en route to their destination, they are always collecting housekeeping data.
- “This study emphasizes the immense value of archiving this kind of data, and is a great example of using a spacecraft itself as a scientific instrument,” says ESA planetary scientist Olivier Witasse, co-author. “This approach allows us to do science without a spacecraft’s core research instruments even being switched on – a particularly relevant and exciting option for long interplanetary cruises, when instruments often lie dormant as they await the mission ahead. 8)
- “We can potentially use any and all spacecraft in this way, not just those equipped with particular sensors. This opens up a new realm of possibility for both current and forthcoming ESA missions to discover even more about the space environment.”
• March 22, 2021: Mars has lost most of its once plentiful water, with small amounts remaining in the planet’s atmosphere. ESA’s Mars Express now reveals more about where this water has gone, showing that its escape to space is accelerated by dust storms and the planet’s proximity to the Sun, and suggesting that some water may have retreated underground. 9)
- Although arid today, Mars was likely once a water-covered world like our own. Evidence of this is seen in images of vast, flood-formed outflow channels, river valleys and deltas carved into the planet’s surface, as well as in radar observations of liquid water reservoirs locked up beneath the ice and dust of Mars’ south pole.
Figure 8: Water density distribution in Mars atmosphere. Data visualization of water density distribution with altitude in the atmosphere of Mars as a function of season, as measured by the SPICAM instrument on ESA’s Mars Express. The data covers eight martian years (Mars year 27 to 34), based on two dedicated campaigns per year. The data show that the vertical distribution of water vapor is highly variable with season and altitude. The results found that water vapor remained confined to below 60 km when Mars was far from the Sun but extended up to 90 km in altitude when Mars was closest to the Sun. The atmosphere also has a greater water density during southern hemisphere summer, enhanced by the planet’s closer proximity to the Sun.- In this visualization, brighter dots indicate a higher density of water (up to 1013 cm-3), darker indicate a lower density (5 x 109 cm-3). Data for two global dust storms are excluded from the data. See A. Fedorova et al (2021) for values and detailed description [image credit: ESA, based on data from A. Fedorova et al (2021)] 10)
- Water can now only exist on Mars in the form of ice or gas due to the low atmospheric pressure on the planet, which is less than 1% that of Earth. Mars has lost much of its former water to space over the past few billion years, and is still leaking water from its atmosphere today.
- Two new studies, led by Anna Fedorova of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Jean-Yves Chaufray of the Laboratoire Atmospheres Observations Spatiales, France, now clarify how water moves through and leaves Mars’ atmosphere. They reveal that this process is affected by the planet’s distance from the Sun and changes in its climate and weather, including the massive global dust storms often seen on the planet.
Figure 9: ESA’s Mars Express finds that atmospheric water loss is accelerated by seasonal change and dust storms. Across a full orbit, the distance between the Sun and Mars ranges from 207 million to 249 million km. The results found that water vapor remained confined to below 60 km when Mars was far from the Sun but extended up to 90 km in altitude when Mars was closest to the Sun. The atmosphere also has a greater water density during southern hemisphere summer, enhanced by the planet’s closer proximity to the Sun. Furthermore, in years when Mars experienced a global dust storm the upper atmosphere became even wetter, accumulating water in excess at altitudes of over 80 km (the global dust storm data is not shown in the graph). - The study finds that Mars loses a global 2 m layer of water every billion years, but this is insufficient to explain where all the water needed to create the observed water-carved features on the planet has gone. The results suggest that either this water has moved underground, or that atmospheric water escape rates were far higher in the past [image credit: ESA; data: A. Fedorova et al (2021)]
- The atmosphere is the link between surface and space, and so has much to tell us about how Mars has lost its water,” says Anna. “We studied the water vapor in the atmosphere from the ground up to 100 km in altitude, a region that had yet to be explored, over eight martian years.”
- Anna and colleagues found that water vapor remained confined to below 60 km when Mars was far from the Sun but extended up to 90 km in altitude when Mars was closest to the Sun. Across a full orbit, the distance between the Sun and the Red Planet ranges from 207 million to 249 million km.
- Near the Sun, the warmer temperatures and more intensive circulation in the atmosphere prevented water from freezing out at a certain altitude. “Then, the upper atmosphere becomes moistened and saturated with water, explaining why water escape rates speed up during this season – water is carried higher, aiding its escape to space,” adds Anna.
- In years when Mars experienced a global dust storm the upper atmosphere became even wetter, accumulating water in excess at altitudes of over 80 km.
- “This confirms that dust storms, which are known to warm and disrupt Mars’ atmosphere, also deliver water to high altitudes,” says Anna. “Thanks to Mars Express’ continuous monitoring, we were able to analyze the last two global dust storms, in 2007 and 2018, and compare what we found to storm-free years to identify how the storms affected water escape from Mars.”
- This finding is supported by research led by Jean-Yves, which modelled the density of hydrogen atoms in Mars’ upper atmosphere over two years and explored how this related to water escape.
- “We compared our results to SPICAM data and found good agreement – except during the dusty season, when our model underestimated just how much hydrogen was present,” says Jean-Yves. “Far more water escapes through the atmosphere during disturbed conditions than the model predicted.”
- Across two martian years, one of which experienced a dust storm, Jean-Yves and colleagues estimated that the rate of water loss varied by a factor of about 100, highlighting the significant effect that dust storms can have on Mars’ rates of water loss.
- The findings show that Mars loses the equivalent of a global two-meter-deep layer of water every billion years. However, even accumulated over Mars’ four-billion-year history, this amount is insufficient to explain where all of Mars’ water has gone.
- “A significant amount must have once existed on the planet to explain the water-created features we see,” says Jean-Yves. “As it hasn’t all been lost to space, our results suggest that either this water has moved underground, or that water escape rates were far higher in the past.”
- The results from Anna, Jean-Yves and colleagues complement recent findings by the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which, since 2018 and alongside Mars Express, has monitored the distribution of water by altitude in Mars’ atmosphere. These findings suggested that Mars’ rate of water loss may be linked to seasonal changes.
Figure 10: Mars dust storm in April 2018. The high resolution stereo camera on board ESA’s Mars Express captured this impressive upwelling front of dust clouds – visible in the right half of the frame – near the north polar ice cap of Mars in April this year (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Mars Express’ work to determine Mars’ water loss is also supported by NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission, which is systematically measuring the chemical composition of the martian atmosphere (specifically, the levels of atomic hydrogen and deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen). Such multi-mission data will help constrain not only how water is currently behaving but also the cumulative water loss over martian history – vital to figure out whether Mars’ water has gone underground or to space.
- “Two key themes in our ongoing exploration of Mars are the planet’s evolution and water loss, and the role of dust storms in shaping the martian climate and atmosphere,” says Dmitrij Titov, ESA’s Mars Express project scientist.
- “These findings help us understand the longer-term processes behind Mars’ water loss and paint a picture of not only its present-day climatology, but how its climate has changed throughout history. For such studies we need the kind of high-quality datasets provided by SPICAM and also the instruments aboard ExoMars’ TGO. Together, these and other advanced missions will continue to unveil the mysteries of Mars.”
- Mars Express launched on 2 June 2003, and has spent over 17 years in orbit at Mars carefully monitoring the properties of the planet’s atmosphere.
• March 9, 2021: When spring arrives in southern Mars, a cloud of water ice emerges near the 20 km-tall Arsia Mons volcano, rapidly stretching out for many hundreds of kilometers before fading away in mere hours. A detailed long-term study now reveals the secrets of this elongated cloud, using exciting new observations from the ‘Mars Webcam’ on ESA’s Mars Express. 12)
- Mars Express has spied this cloud before as it hovers near the Arsia Mons volcano, just south of Mars’ equator. Puzzlingly, Arsia Mons is the only low-latitude location on Mars where clouds are seen – and the only one of numerous similar volcanoes in the region to possess such a veil of cloud – at this time of year. Mars Express has seen this veil grow and fade on a daily basis throughout the spring and summer seasons, sending back striking images of this long and dramatic white cloud.
Figure 11: A mysteriously long, thin cloud has again appeared over the 20-km high Arsia Mons volcano on Mars. A recurrent feature, the cloud is made up of water ice, but despite appearances it is not a plume linked to volcanic activity. Instead, the curious stream forms as airflow is influenced by the volcano’s ‘leeward’ slope - the side that does not face the wind. - These images of the cloud, which can reach up to 1800-km in length, were taken on 17 and 19 July 2020 by the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) on Mars Express, which has been studying the Red Planet from orbit for the past 16 years (image credit: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao)
- However, the cloud is difficult to observe in its entirety due to the fast, changeable dynamics of the martian atmosphere and the constraints of many spacecraft orbits, limiting our knowledge of how and why it forms and changes over time.
- “To clear these hurdles, we used one of Mars Express’ secret tools – the VMC (Visual Monitoring Camera)” says Jorge Hernández Bernal of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, lead author of the new findings and part of a long-term project studying the cloud’s dynamics.
- Jorge and colleagues’ work demonstrates an exciting, and unintended, use for the VMC. Also nicknamed the Mars Webcam, the VMC has a resolution similar to that of a standard 2003 computer webcam. It was installed to visually confirm that the Beagle 2 lander had successfully separated from Mars Express back in 2003 – after which it was switched off. Several years later, the camera was reactivated and used to gather images of Mars for public engagement and outreach activities, but remained unused for scientific research.
Figure 12: Evolution of the AMEC (Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud). A series of images captured by the Visual Monitoring Camera on ESA's Mars Express of the recurring Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud. Image sequences were captured between 20 October and 1 November 2018 and represent a daily cycle of the cloud. The cloud begins growing before sunrise on the western slope of Arsia Mons volcano before expanding westwards for two and a half hours, growing remarkably fast — at over 600 km/h — at an altitude of 45 km. It then stops expanding, detaches from its initial location, and is pulled further westwards still by high-altitude winds, before evaporating in the late morning as air temperatures increase with the rising Sun. - In the gif image, the black region to the left is the nightside of Mars, while the tan-colored mask on the right hand side is covering part of the planet that was not imaged. The blue line marks the 'terminator' – the boundary between the day and night sides of the planet. Because the cloud starts growing before sunrise, it can sometimes be seen even on the nightside. This is possible because it is high over the surface, so the Sun’s rays can still illuminate it close to the terminator (image credit: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao , CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- “However, recently, the VMC was reclassified as a camera for science,” adds Jorge. “Although it has a low spatial resolution, it has a wide field of view – essential to see the big picture at different local times of day – and is wonderful for tracking a feature’s evolution over both a long period of time and in small time steps. As a result, we could study the whole cloud across numerous life cycles.”
- The research team combined the VMC observations with those from two other Mars Express instruments – OMEGA and HRSC – and from several other spacecraft, namely NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and Viking 2 missions, and the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). “We were especially excited when we dug into Viking 2's observations from the 1970s,” says Jorge. “We found that this huge, fascinating cloud had already been partially imaged that long ago – and now we’re exploring it in detail.”
- The findings revealed that, at its largest, the cloud measures some 1 800 km in length and 150 km across. It is the biggest ‘orographic’ cloud ever seen on Mars, meaning that it forms as a result of wind being forced upwards by topographic features (such as mountains or volcanoes) on a planetary surface. In this case, Arsia Mons perturbs the martian atmosphere to trigger the formation of the cloud; moist air is then driven up the flanks of the volcano in updrafts, later condensing at higher, and far cooler, altitudes.
- The cloud undergoes a rapid daily cycle that repeats every morning for several months. It begins growing before sunrise on the western slope of Arsia Mons before expanding westwards for two and a half hours, growing remarkably fast – at over 600 km/h – at an altitude of 45 km. It then stops expanding, detaches from its initial location, and is pulled further westwards still by high-altitude winds, before evaporating in the late morning as air temperatures increase with the rising Sun.
- “Many Mars orbiters cannot begin observing this part of the surface until the afternoon due to the properties of their orbits, so this really is the first detailed exploration of this interesting feature – and it’s made possible by not only Mars Express’ diverse suite of instruments, but also its orbit,” explains co-author Agustin Sánchez-Lavega, also of the University of the Basque Country and Science Lead for the VMC.
- No other climate system in the Solar System is thought to be as similar to Earth’s as the martian system – but even still, the two planets show distinct and intriguing differences. “Although orographic clouds are commonly observed on Earth, they don’t reach such enormous lengths or show such vivid dynamics,” says Agustin. “Understanding this cloud gives us the exciting opportunity to try to replicate the cloud’s formation with models – models that will improve our knowledge of climatic systems on both Mars and Earth.”
- As well as using the VMC in an exciting way, Jorge, Agustin and colleagues also overcame a typical challenge when observing transient phenomena on Mars. High-resolution cameras such as Mars Express’ HRSC have narrow fields of view, and observations are always planned in advance. As a result, meteorological phenomena – which are generally unpredictable – are usually caught by chance. However, once the researchers began to understand the life cycle and annual patterns of this elongated cloud, they were able to direct the HRSC team to the right place and right time to capture it as it emerged.
- “These findings really demonstrate the strengths of Mars Express – its unique orbit, longevity, persistent quality, and ability to adapt as it tackles the mysteries of Mars,” says ESA’s Mars Express project scientist Dmitrij Titov.
- “Repurposing the VMC has successfully enabled us to understand this transient cloud in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The VMC allows scientists to track clouds, monitor dust storms, probe cloud and dust structures in the martian atmosphere, explore changes in the planet’s polar ice caps, and more. Its recommissioning not only supports Mars Express’ primary toolkit for Mars exploration, but adds new value to the long-standing mission, which has been revealing more about the Red Planet since 2003.” 13)
Figure 13: Profile of AMEC. When spring arrives in southern Mars, a cloud of water ice emerges near the 20-kilometer-tall Arsia Mons volcano, rapidly stretching out for many hundreds of kilometers before fading away in a matter of hours. A detailed long-term study reveals the daily and seasonal behavior of this cloud, using new observations from the Visual Monitoring Camera on ESA’s Mars Express, along with data from other Mars orbiters (image credit: ESA)
• On 18 February 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover is expected to arrive at Jezero impact crater, the site of a former lake on Mars. The High Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express has provided important context for the landing site and its surrounds. 14)
- Mars Express has been imaging the Red Planet in three dimensions and in color since 2004. The data it collects make it possible to create images of large areas of the martian surface – not only as color mosaic images, but also as digital terrain models. These provide researchers with important information about the terrain and elevation of the land. Accurate topographical information is critical for ensuring a safe landing. The detailed data from Mars Express has been used to support the selection of numerous landing site candidates, including that of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission that will see Perseverance rover land in Jezero Crater this week.
- The images shown here are derived from ‘map sheets’ covering millions of square kilometers, depicting the wider geographical context around the landing site. But the images not only provide a large-scale overview of the geographic location; thanks to their high resolution, they can be greatly enlarged for a closer look at individual details of the landscape in exceptional quality.
Figure 14: Jezero crater flyover. NASA’s Perseverance rover is expected to arrive at Jezero impact crater, the site of a former lake on Mars, on 18 February 2021. The High Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express has provided important context for the landing site and its surrounds. A taste of this imagery is provided in this short video clip (video credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Jezero in context
- Jezero crater lies exactly on the border between the ancient highland region of Terra Sabaea, where rocks from 4.1–3.7 billion years ago can still be found, and the 3.9 billion year old Isidis impact basin. The Nili Fossae graben system, which roughly traces the curved shape of the rim of Isidis basin, was formed by the impact event as a result of tectonic fractures. The Isidis Planitia (plains) is made up of much younger deposits and formed in the martian ‘middle ages’ some 3.7-3 billion years ago, modified up to the present day. To the southwest of Jezero Crater is the volcanic region of Syrtis Major, where lava flowed around 3.7-3 billion years ago. Thus, the rocks and deposits in and around Jezero Crater span the geological history of Mars.
Jezero mineralogy in depth
- Jezero Crater has a diverse mineralogy, which can be used to infer the environmental conditions at the time of the minerals’ formation. Perseverance rover will be studying them directly.
- The detailed map of Jezero Crater (Figure 15) shows that the crater rim is breached by three valleys that were former rivers. Neretva Vallis and Sava Vallis were inflow channels that have created two deltas on the western and northwestern rim of the crater. Perseverance will examine the larger of the two in the west in more detail.
- Pliva Vallis in the east of Jezero was an outflow channel through which water was discharged from the crater. As such, Jezero is known as an ‘open basin lake’, a type of lake that is thought to have once been numerous on Mars. Compared to closed basins (with inflow but no outflow), they are interesting because they hosted freshwater lakes with a stable water level. Lakes in closed basins, on the other hand, were subjected to more frequent periods of drying out, which turned them into salt lakes, thus making them less promising in the search for conditions that are conducive to life.
- The large map shows the water catchment area of the two inflow channels, from which material from the surrounding area was transported by the rivers into the crater and deposited in the two deltas. Spacecraft orbiting Mars have used spectrometers to detect a variety of minerals in this catchment area. These are mainly silicates from the olivine and pyroxene groups, both mineral classes that originate from magma within the martian mantle and indicate basaltic volcanic deposits that were not subject to long-term weathering by water. Carbonates identified on the inner rim of Jezero Crater, together with the clay minerals, testify to weathering by water of rock with a volcanic source.
- Volcanic minerals, carbonates and clay minerals are observed both in the delta and elsewhere in the crater. Some carbonates (limestones) are thought to have been formed directly in the lake. Such lake carbonates, and especially the clay minerals, indicate freshwater conditions and have the potential to preserve traces of life.
- However, other types of minerals, such as sulphates that contain iron oxide, amorphous silicon oxides, and hydroxides, have also been observed; these tend to form in acidic waters that gradually dried up. These minerals indicate that the environmental conditions in Jezero Crater became drier and less conducive to life at a later stage.
Figure 15: Topographic map of Jezero crater and surrounds (annotated). This elevation map of Jezero crater and its surrounds shows the topography of the broader region, from the highlands (red and browns) to the lower lying floor of the Isidis impact basin (green). The height difference in this area of 1.5 million square kilometers is over 6800 meters, with the floor of Jezero crater lying at an elevation of approximately minus 2600 meters below the ‘Mars Areoid’, a notional plane of equal gravitational attraction, analogous to sea level on Earth. Jezero crater, the landing site of NASA’s 2020 Perseverance rover mission, is marked on the map. It hosts two river deltas from inflow channels that once brought water into Jezero, which is thought to have once hosted a lake. - This elevation map was created from ESA Mars Express data. The High Resolution Stereo Camera’s nine sensors, arranged at right angles to the north-south flight direction, record the surface of Mars from different angles and in four color channels. From the four inclined stereo channels and the nadir channel, which is directed perpendicular to the surface of Mars, scientists at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research and the Freie Universität Berlin compute digital terrain models, which assign elevation information to each pixel. The high resolution of the data processed for this image allows for greater enlargement of the images for a closer look at individual details of the landscape (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 16: Jezero crater, the touchdown site for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, in context of its surroundings. It is situated between highlands, an impact basin, a volcanic province and an ancient river delta. The dark bluish-black areas are layers of ancient volcanic ash that is widely dispersed by the wind, often piling up into impressive dune fields. - This image was created from the red, green and blue channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express, combined with high-resolution data from its nadir channel, which is directed perpendicular to the surface of Mars. The high resolution of the data processed for this image allows for greater enlargement, enabling a closer look at individual details of the landscape. Small gaps in the image mosaic were interpolated (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Tour the viewpoints
- The 49 km Jezero Crater (viewpoint crater center) once hosted an ancient lake fed by two prominent valleys (viewpoints Naretva and Sava Vallis), with Perseverance targeting a region close to one of the river deltas (viewpoints Delta top and basement). Within the delta deposits, numerous water-bearing minerals have been observed from orbit, indicating that liquid water was once present for an extended period of time, perhaps up to 250 m depth.
- The deltas are a prime target to look for ancient biomarkers. Meanwhile an outflow channel (viewpoint Outflow channel) breaks through the eastern rim of Jezero. The presence of both inflow and outflow channels suggest the crater was constantly replenished with fresh water.
- The Mountain View viewpoint on top of a larger hill in the southeast offers a perfect vista into the crater. From here, the observer can see that the northern part of the crater floor is sloping and that the northern crater rim is clearly less defined, compared to the flat, smooth crater floor in the south and the much steeper southern crater rim flanks. This appearance originates from the erosion of material in the catchment areas to the north of the crater, which was then transported into the crater basin itself and deposited in the deltas. Also contributing to the asymmetrical topography is the erosion of the northern crater rim, caused by the river valleys breaking through the flank of Jezero.
• February 11, 2021: NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is due to land on the Red Planet at 21:43 CET on 18 February 2021. In order to communicate with Earth from its landing site in Jezero Crater, the rover will rely on spacecraft orbiting Mars to relay the images and other data it collects back to Earth and pass on the commands from engineers beamed across space in the other direction. 15)
- On 18 February, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will land on the Red Planet
- ESA’s Mars orbiters – the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Mars Express – are supporting the landing
- TGO will relay important data from Perseverance to Earth as soon as four hours after landing
- Mars Express is monitoring the local conditions at the landing site, Jezero Crater
- Both ESA orbiters are providing context images of the region
- TGO will attempt to image the rover in the weeks after landing.
The ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) is one of these spacecraft. As its orbit takes it over the landing site, TGO will enter communication windows with Perseverance and relay data between Earth and the rover via a network of deep space ground stations on Earth, including ESA’s Estrack network.
Helping Perseverance phone home
The data transmitted by Perseverance in its first hours and days on Mars will be vital to the mission. Did the rover land safely? Are all of its systems functional?
To ensure that this information gets to the engineers on Earth as quickly as possible, TGO and NASA’s mars orbiters will be able to communicate with deep space ground stations on Earth almost twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for the first two weeks after landing. ESA’s ground station network will provide roughly 14 hours a day of this ‘low-latency’ coverage.
“TGO will provide low-latency data relay support to Perseverance during this period, and continue to provide routine relay support afterwards,” says ESA’s Peter Schmitz, TGO Spacecraft Operations Manager. “Our first relay session with TGO will start at 02:07 CET on 19 February, just four hours after landing.”
Figure 17: ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter will relay data from NASA's Perseverance rover to ground stations on Earth. The data transmitted by Perseverance in its first hours and days will be vital to the mission. Did the rover land safely? Are all of its systems functional? To ensure that this information gets to the engineers on Earth as quickly as possible, TGO and NASA’s mars orbiters will be able to communicate with deep space ground stations on Earth almost twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for the first two weeks after landing. ESA’s ground station network will provide roughly 14 hours a day of this ‘low-latency’ coverage. - “TGO will provide low-latency data relay support to Perseverance during this period, and continue to provide routine relay support afterwards,” says ESA’s Peter Schmitz, TGO Spacecraft Operations Manager. “Our first relay session with TGO will start at 02:07 CET on 19 February, just four hours after landing.”- The Trace Gas Orbiter is the first of two missions of ESA’s ExoMars programme that is attempting to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars. TGO arrived at Mars in October 2016 and is conducting a detailed study of the atmosphere and mapping signatures of water below the planet’s surface. The orbiter is operated from ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany and mission controllers already have a lot of experience relaying data from existing Mars landers (image credit: ESA)
Monitoring conditions at Jezero
Mars Express is Europe’s first mission to the Red Planet. Since beginning operations in 2004, the durable orbiter has helped answer fundamental questions about the geology, atmosphere, surface environment, history of water and potential for life on Mars.
The high-resolution camera on board Mars Express has sent back thousands of dramatic, 3D views of the martian surface, including those used to produce a virtual flight over Jezero Crater, the planned landing site for Perseverance.
The spacecraft’s Visual Monitoring Camera – also known as the ‘Mars Webcam’ – is providing additional wide context views of the landing region.
The Mars Express Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) is monitoring local conditions at Jezero Crater. The information it collects is passed on to the Perseverance Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team at NASA and is included in their daily report during the two weeks leading up to the landing.
“The engineers working with EDL systems need precise information on the density of the Martian atmosphere above the site at the time of landing and how it changes with altitude,” says Marco Giuranna, PFS Principal Investigator from Istituto Fisica Spazio Interplanetario in Rome, Italy.
“Having up-to-date knowledge of the temperature, pressure, dust and ice conditions in the atmosphere is crucial for understanding its density and predicting and analyzing the trajectory of the rover’s descent to the surface of the Red Planet.”
• February 8, 2021: A new Mars year began on 7 February 2021. 16)
Figure 18: The image on the left was taken on 6 February and the image on the right on 7 February – one of the first images returned from the new martian year. The images were captured by the Visual Monitoring Camera onboard ESA’s Mars Express, which takes regular snapshots of the planet from orbit. The images are automatically shared to the camera’s Twitter account and posted to Flickr. One year on Mars equals 687 Earth days, so it takes almost twice as long to orbit the Sun. Your birthday would instead be every 23 Earth months! The martian new year begins with the northward equinox (northern spring, southern autumn) and the coming year is designated Mars Year 36 (image credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• February 3, 2021: On Mars, there are no yearly tax returns, but as the planet also orbits around our Sun, time on Mars is similarly measured in years. However, there are some significant differences between a year on Mars and a year on Earth. As we approach New Year’s Eve on Mars, let’s look at some similarities and differences between a year on the two planets. 17)
Figure 19: On Mars, there are no yearly tax returns, but as the planet also orbits around our Sun, time on Mars is similarly measured in years. However, there are some significant differences between a year on Mars and a year on Earth. 7 February 2021 marks the start of Year 36 on Mars. As we approach this New Year’s Eve, let’s look at some similarities and differences between a year on the two planets (image credit: ESA)
Table 3: Some background information on planet Mars
Figure 20: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a beautiful slice of the Red Planet from the northern polar cap, and highlights cratered, pockmarked swathes of the Terra Sabaea and Arabia Terra regions. It comprises data gathered on 17 June 2019 during orbit 19550. The ground resolution at the center of the image is approximately 1 km/pixel and the images are centered at about 44ºE/26ºN. This image was created using data from the nadir and color channels of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• December 17, 2020: As the holiday season swiftly approaches, even our planetary neighbors are getting into the spirit – as shown by this perfect pair of festive silhouettes spotted by ESA’s Mars Express. 18)
- The defined wings of an angelic figure, complete with halo, can be seen sweeping up and off the top of the frame in this image from Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera, while a large heart sits just right of centre. These shapes appear to jump out of the light tan — or, in the spirit of the season, eggnog-colored! — surface of Mars; their dark color is a result of the composition of the constituent dune fields, which largely comprise sands rich in dark, rock-forming minerals that are also found on Earth (namely pyroxene and olivine).
Figure 21: This image provides a perspective view of a pair of festive silhouettes – an angel (left) and a heart (right) spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole. It comprises data gathered by ESA’s Mars Express on 8 November 2020 during orbit 21305. The ground resolution is approximately 15 m/pixel and the image is centered at about 148ºE/78ºS. This view 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. HRSC stereo imaging was then used to derive the digital elevation model (DTM) upon which this oblique view is based (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 22: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a region near Mars' south pole in wider context. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on 8 November 2020 during orbit 21305 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
- This ethereal scene is found in the south polar region of Mars, with the pole itself located directly out of frame to the right (south). The south pole is typically covered in a 1.5 km-thick ice cap measuring around 400 km across and with a volume of 1.6 million km3, just over 12% of which is water ice. The rest of the cap is largely composed of ‘dry ice’ (solid carbon dioxide), which freezes from the atmosphere during winter and then sublimates (turns from a solid to a gas) in the summer.
- As Mars’ southern hemisphere is currently experiencing summer, this image shows the planet’s southern polar ice stores at their lowest annual levels.
- The ‘angel’ and ‘heart’ are both composed of various interesting features. Firstly, the angel’s hand, seen as if reaching to the left, is thought to be a large sublimation pit, a type of feature that forms as ice turns to gas and leaves empty pockets and depressions in the planetary surface (a process that often occurs as the seasons change). Sublimation pits have been seen on other planets in the Solar System, such as Pluto, and can also be seen scattered across the terrain to the right.
Figure 23: This color-coded topographic image shows a pair of festive silhouettes spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole, based on data gathered by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) during orbit 21305 (8 November 2020). This view is based on a digital terrain model of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived; 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. North is to the left (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Moving on to one of the angel’s most distinctive features, its halo, reveals yet more intriguing processes at play. The ‘head’ and halo are formed of an impact crater, created as a body from space flew inwards to collide with Mars’ crust. As this impactor hit it dug down into the surface, revealing the numerous layered deposits that make up the southern polar region. These subsurface layers can be glimpsed in other areas where the surface has been disturbed – areas that are clearly identifiable in the associated topographic view due to their notably low elevation – and hint at the long, complex, interesting history of this part of Mars.
Figure 24: This image provides a perspective view of a heart-shaped silhouette spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole. It comprises data gathered by ESA’s Mars Express on 8 November 2020 during orbit 21305. The ground resolution is approximately 15 m/pixel and the image is centered at about 148ºE/78ºS. This view 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. HRSC stereo imaging was then used to derive the digital elevation model (DTM) upon which this oblique view is based (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, , CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Finally comes the heart, which is underscored by a steep escarpment – a line of cliffs or steep slopes created by erosive processes – and separated from the dark expanse of dunes below. The origin of this dark material, which is found all over Mars, remains unclear, but scientists posit that it once existed deeper below the surface in layers of material formed by ancient volcanic activity. Although this material was initially buried, it has since been brought to the surface by ongoing impacts and erosion, and then distributed more widely across the planet by martian winds.
- This landscape also shows signs of dust devils in the dark, scratched, cross-hatched pattern to the left of the frame. Dust devils are common on Mars, and form as dust is whipped up from the Sun-warmed surface by wind. Here, dust devils have lifted surface material and carried it away, leaving dark marks in their wake.
Figure 25: A festive scene near Mars’ south pole – in 3D. This image shows a pair of festive silhouettes spotted by ESA’s Mars Express near Mars’ south pole 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 21305 (8 November 2020). It covers a part of the martian surface centered at 148ºE/78ºS. North is to the left (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• November 19, 2020: Elevation can be deceiving in satellite imagery of Mars, even when differences are extreme – as demonstrated by this image of Pyrrhae Regio from ESA’s Mars Express. A chunk of terrain has collapsed and dropped more than four kilometers below its surroundings, illustrating the incredible contrast and dynamism seen across the martian surface. 19)
Figure 26: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows craters, valleys and chaotic terrain in Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio. This image comprises data gathered by ESA’s Mars Express using its High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on 3 August 2020 (orbit 20972). The ground resolution is approximately 16 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 322°E/16°S. 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)
- This slice of Mars, seen here as imaged by Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), shows signs of various intriguing processes.
- A scattering of impact craters, formed as incoming bodies from space collided with Mars’ surface, can be seen to the left of the frame; the floor of the largest and uppermost basin spans about 40 km, and contains some fractures and markings that formed just after the crater itself. Hot, molten rock is thought to have been thrown up during the crater-forming collision, after which it cooled and settled to form the scar-like features visible here.
Figure 27: This image provides a perspective view of chaotic terrain in Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio. Chaotic terrain forms as a shifting subsurface layer of melting ice and sediment causes the surface above to collapse. This view comprises data gathered by ESA’s Mars Express on 3 August 2020 during orbit 20972. The ground resolution is approximately 16 m/pixel and the image is centered at about 322ºE/16ºS. This view 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. HRSC stereo imaging was then used to derive the digital elevation model (DTM) upon which this oblique view is based (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Towards the middle of the frame, the surface is relatively smooth and featureless – however, two broad channels have worked their way through the landscape, and can be seen as meandering, branching indentations in the surrounding terrain. These channels are reminiscent of so-called ‘sapping valleys’ on Earth, which form as water consistently seeps and flows through sediment to carve out a natural drainage network.
- The valleys are attached at their rightward end to the real star of this image: a sunken, uneven, scarred patch of ground known as chaotic terrain.
- Chaotic terrain, as the name suggests, looks irregular and jumbled, and is thought to form as sub-surface ice and sediment begins to melt and shift. This shifting layer causes the surface above to collapse – a collapse that can happen quickly and catastrophically as water drains away rapidly through the regolith (the near-surface layer of rocky planets). Ice can be triggered to melt by heating events such as volcanic lava flows, subsurface magmatism, impacts by large meteorites, or changes in climate.
Figure 28: This color-coded topographic image shows craters, valleys and chaotic terrain in Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio, based on data gathered by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) during orbit 20972 (3 August 2020). This view is based on a digital terrain model (DTM) of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived; 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. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- In the chaotic terrain seen here, ice has melted, the resulting water drained away, and a number of disparate broken ‘blocks’ have been left standing in now-empty cavities (which once hosted ice). Remarkably, the floors of these cavities lie some four kilometers below the flatter ground near the craters to the left, as seen clearly in the associated topographic view – a colossal difference in height (for reference, the highest mountain peaks of the Pyrenees and the Alps top out at just over 3.4 km and 4.8 km, respectively).
- Considering the broader landscape containing and surrounding Pyrrhae Regio, the chaotic nature of this area is unsurprising. To the west of this patch of ground lies one of the most extreme features in the Solar System: a colossal canyon system named Valles Marineris.
- Valles Marineris is roughly ten times longer and five times deeper than the Grand Canyon on Earth, and comprises myriad smaller rifts, channels, outflows, fractures and signs of flowing material (such as water, ice, lava or debris). It is home to many substantial chaotic terrains, including Aurorae Chaos and Erythraeum Chaos.
- Valles Marineris is an unmissable scar on the face of Mars, and thought to have formed as the planet’s crust was stretched by nearby volcanic activity, causing it to rip and crack open before collapsing into the deep troughs we see today. These troughs have been further shaped and eroded by water flows, landslides, and other erosive processes, with spacecraft including Mars Express spying signs that water existed in parts of Valles Marineris in the relatively recent past (‘mere’ hundreds of millions of years ago).
Figure 29: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio in wider context. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on 3 August 2020 during orbit 20972 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
- Valles Marineris is an unmissable scar on the face of Mars, and thought to have formed as the planet’s crust was stretched by nearby volcanic activity, causing it to rip and crack open before collapsing into the deep troughs we see today. These troughs have been further shaped and eroded by water flows, landslides, and other erosive processes, with spacecraft including Mars Express spying signs that water existed in parts of Valles Marineris in the relatively recent past (‘mere’ hundreds of millions of years ago).
Figure 30: This image shows craters, valleys and chaotic terrain in Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio 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 20972 (3 August 2020). It covers a part of the martian surface centered at 322ºE/16ºS. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• October 29, 2020: Mars is covered in intriguing scars – some of the most prominent being impact craters. A particularly unusual example is shown in this new image from ESA’s Mars Express: an ancient triplet comprising not one but three overlapping craters. 20)
- The crater triplet is located in an especially old part of Mars’ southern hemisphere known as Noachis Terra. This region was heavily cratered during the Noachian era, an ancient time about four billion years ago in Mars’ history in which huge numbers of asteroids and comets flew inwards to crash into the planet's surface. Some of the features created by these collisions remain intact on Mars today and, as they formed during the very earliest days of the Solar System, are of particular interest to scientists seeking to know more about our planetary neighbor and its past.
- Signs of chaotic Noachian processes and events are seen especially clearly in Mars’ southern highlands, which are peppered with old, time-worn craters. ESA’s Mars Express has imaged many craters in this region, from the severely eroded Greeley Crater, named after the American geologist Ronald Greeley, to the dune-patterned Neukum Crater, named after one of the founders of the Mars Express mission (and the former Principal Investigator of the spacecraft’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), the camera responsible for this new image).
Figure 31: In context: Triple crater east of Le Verrier. This image shows a triple crater in the ancient martian highlands – more specifically, the region of Noachis Terra – in a wider context. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on 6 August 2020 during orbit 20982 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
Figure 32: Perspective view of triple martian crater. This image provides a perspective view of a triple crater in the ancient martian highlands. It comprises data gathered by ESA’s Mars Express on 6 August 2020 during orbit 20982. The ground resolution is approximately 15 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 19ºE/37ºS. 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. HRSC stereo imaging was then used to derive the digital elevation model (DTM) upon which this oblique view is based (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- This image shows a triple crater found just east of a better-known feature named Le Verrier Crater, which spans nearly 140 km across. By contrast, the three depressions seen here are somewhat smaller; the largest measures 45 km across, and the smallest 28 km.
- How would such a crater triplet form? One possible explanation – and that thought to be most likely – is that the impactor broke into three before hitting the ground, forming a crater trio upon impact. Not all ‘multiple impactors’ leave such clear and neat features in their wake, with many instead showing elongated troughs, non-circular hollows lying closely side-by-side, or only partially overlapping basins. Another explanation could be coincidence: at different points in time, three separate impactors could have hit Mars’ surface in this location, creating a neat superposition of craters completely by chance.
- Interestingly, if the impactor did indeed fragment and break apart, this may imply that the atmosphere of Noachian Mars was far denser – and harder to penetrate – than it is now. This points towards an early Mars that was far warmer and wetter than the cold, arid world we see today. Observations from numerous missions are supporting this view and returning evidence that water once flowed across the Red Planet in large amounts, revealing features such as old river valley networks and large lake basins thought to have formed in the Noachian period.
Figure 33: Topographic view of triple crater on Mars. This color-coded topographic image shows a triple crater in the ancient martian highlands, based on data gathered by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) during orbit 20982 (6 August 2020). This view is based on a digital terrain model (DTM) of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived; 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. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Like many of the ancient and eroded craters in Mars’ southern highlands, these three craters have flattened rims, shallow floors, and have been filled with sediment in the four billion years since their formation. There is also evidence of ice here – the smallest crater has marks that are typically created as ice and debris creep across a surface, similar to how mixed rock-and-ice glaciers or debris-covered ice glaciers move in alpine regions of Earth.
- This frame may once have contained other craters, as indicated by the round patches of sunken surface to the top right and bottom left. In fact, despite the cratered nature of Noachis Terra, the environment around this triplet is surprisingly smooth for such ancient terrain. Only a handful of small surrounding craters appear to have clear, sharply defined rims and bowls, indicating that they are relatively young and have not yet begun to erode in earnest. Overall, it seems that older craters in this area have ‘melted down’ into the surface – a phenomenon that is, again, due to ice.
- As ice just under the surface of Mars flows and melts over many millions of years, the soil becomes softer. This soft, ice-rich soil subsides more quickly and fills up indentations and depressions more readily, contributing to the smooth appearance of this part of Noachis Terra. This suggests that there must have been a large amount of water present on Mars, at least during the Noachian period, capable of producing a glacier-like flow of abundant ice.
Figure 34: Triple crater east of Le Verrier in 3D. This image shows a triple crater in the ancient martian highlands 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 20982 (6 August 2020). It covers a part of the martian surface centered at 19ºE/37ºS. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Understanding the history of Mars, and mapping the features covering the planet’s surface in detail, is a key objective of Mars Express. The spacecraft has been exploring the Red Planet since its launch in 2003, and is gearing up to collaborate with a number of new missions that have joined – or will soon join – the spacecraft at Mars. The ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) arrived in 2016, and the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform are scheduled for launch in September 2022.
- Together with Mars Express, these missions will work to fully characterize our neighbor, to help us not only understand more about Mars, but, by comparison, more about the history and nature of our home in the Universe.
• October 16, 2020: Volcanoes, ice caps, dust storms, curious clouds and a double vortex are just some of the delights captured by ESA’s Mars Express ‘webcam’, and now the data behind the images are available in the Planetary Science Archive, the central repository for all scientific data returned by ESA's Solar System missions. 21)
- Originally intended as an engineering instrument to watch the release of the Beagle 2 lander in 2003, the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) onboard ESA’s Mars Express was repurposed to observe the Red Planet since 2007, and became a recognized science instrument in 2016. Now the data behind the images are available in the Planetary Science Archives alongside that of the spacecraft’s other seven science instruments.
- The data comes from observations taken of the Red Planet between 2007 to mid-2020, as well as of the release of the Beagle 2 lander in 2003, calibrated for scientific use and available in different formats.
- Data from the VMC has already been instrumental for a number of scientific studies and publications. Previously, VMC images were only available via a Flickr page, but today’s release is the first ‘science data’ release for the instrument, and is the culmination of several years of hard work by the VMC team.
- Stunning views of the Red Planet will continue to be provided to the general public through Flickr in near real-time – usually within a few days of when the images were taken at Mars.
Figure 35: The image collage presented here highlights some of the beautiful views already captured by the camera and which are available in the archive and gallery. From left to right, row by row: Dust/water ice over the north pole (4 October 2019); Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud (12 November 2008); Olympus Mons caldera (19 October 2019); Double cyclone at the edge of the north pole (16 June 2012); Full disk of Mars with south pole visible (17 November 2016); Part of Valles Marineris with hazes present (12 November 2018); Tharsis Volcanoes and Olympus Mons (9 June 2010): Cloud over Olympus Mons (9 January 2019); Textured patterns in north polar cap (1 January 2020); Polar hoods (water ice clouds) over the north polar cap (28 December 2010): Valles Marineris canyon system (1 July 2008); Full disk of Mars with Tharsis volcanos visible (22 October 2017); Local dust storm over the north polar cap (6 September 2016); Syrtis Major (9 March 2020); Twilight clouds on Mars (25 November 2019); Close up of the south pole of Mars (8 August 2010), image credit: ESA/MEX/VMC, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• September 29, 2020: NASA's 2020 Mars mission has been en route to the Red Planet for two months now. The Perseverance rover on board the spacecraft is set to land in Jezero crater on 18 February 2021. There, the rover, which weighs almost one tonne, will search for signs of past microbial life. Jezero crater was chosen for good scientific reasons. Within the crater lie two ancient river deltas in which many hydrated minerals have been discovered – proof that liquid water existed there for a very long period of time. Precise maps showing the geographical conditions are essential both for the selection of the landing site and for planning exploration on the ground. A topographical map has now been created using numerous stereo images acquired by the HRSC camera operated by the DLR (German Aerospace Center) board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft. This is the most accurate surface model of the entire crater to date. 22)
Water – the most important prerequisite for life
- Jezero crater was formed during the Noachian era, approximately 3.9 billion years ago. The landing site planned for the Perseverance rover is marked with an ellipse labelled 'Mars 2020 LS'. Jezero was once home to a lake and two deltas that were fed with water by tributaries from the large catchment areas in the region. The larger and more clearly defined delta is marked on the map with a dashed ellipse. Its two former tributary valleys (Neretva Vallis and Sava Vallis) can be seen on the western and north-western edges of the crater. An outflow valley (Pliva Vallis) breaks through the crater rim to the east.
- The floor of Jezero crater has an elevation of 2700 meters below the notional 'sea level' on Mars. Strictly speaking, this reference level, which is used on the map shown here, is a surface of equal gravitational attraction, referred to as an areoid. The lake in Jezero crater is thought to have been at least 250 meters deep, a figure derived from the altitude measurements for the crater rim, the crater floor, the river valley profile and the upper edges of the deltas. However, it is no longer possible to make precise estimates today, as the deltas have been severely eroded since water activity ceased approximately 3.8 billion years ago. In addition, the crater was filled with very extensive lava flows from the nearby Syrtis Major region about 300 million years later.
- The topographical map clearly shows how the northern part of the crater floor is sloping and this results in a less clearly defined crater rim when compared to the flat, southern part of the crater floor and the steeper southern flanks. This is due to the erosion of material in the catchment areas to the north of the crater, which was then transported into the crater itself and deposited as sediments in the delta. The erosion of the northern crater rim by the three river valleys that break through it also contributed to the creation of Jezero's asymmetrical topography.
- Clay minerals, particularly carbonates, which have been discovered in comparatively large quantities in the western delta, are significant as potential repositories of biosignatures – that is, traces of microbial life. The early presence of liquid water and the enormous carbonate deposits here make Jezero a perfect destination for the search for possible past life on Mars.
From image data to a mosaic and topographic map
- The map shown here was generated using an image mosaic assembled from individual images acquired by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s mission Mars Express orbiter. The color mosaic on which the map is based was derived from two image strips acquired during orbits 5252 and 5270. It covers an area located at approximately 18 degrees north and 77 degrees east. The color-coded topographical map is based on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived. The reference for the HRSC-DTM is an equipotential surface of Mars (areoid). The HRSC camera on board Mars Express is operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Systematic processing of the camera data was carried out at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof. Personnel at the Department of Planetary Sciences and Remote Sensing at Freie Universität Berlin used these data to create the image products shown here.
The HRSC experiment on Mars Express
- The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) was developed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) and built in collaboration with partners in industry (EADS Astrium, Lewicki Microelectronic GmbH and Jena-Optronik GmbH). The science team, which is headed by Principal Investigator (PI) Ralf Jaumann, consists of 50 co-investigators from 35 institutions in 11 countries. The camera is operated by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof.
Figure 36: The most accurate topographic model of Jezero crater today – created using data from DLR's High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). Jezero crater is the landing site for NASA's Perseverance rover (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• September 28, 2020: ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft has discovered several ponds of liquid water buried under the ice in the south polar region of Mars. The spacecraft’s radar instrument, MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding), revealed one underground reservoir in 2018, buried about 1.5 km below the ice. Now, taking into account more data and analyzing it in a different way, three new ponds have been discovered. The largest underground lake measures about 20 x 30 km, and is surrounded by several smaller ponds. The water is thought to be very salty in order for it to remain liquid at cold temperatures. 23)
Figure 37: Mars was once warmer and wetter with water flowing across the surface, much like early Earth. While it is not possible for water to remain stable on the surface today the new result opens the possibility that an entire system of ancient lakes might exist underground, perhaps millions or even billions of years old. They would be ideal locations to search for evidence of life on Mars, albeit very difficult to reach (video credit: ESA)
- Subglacial lakes are also known on Earth, like Lake Vostok in Antarctica. They may harbor unique ecosystems, providing useful analogies for astrobiologists exploring how life can survive in extreme environments. The techniques used to analyze the radar data on Mars are similar to those used in investigations of subglacial lakes in Antarctica, Canada and Greenland.
• September 3, 2020: A true-color image of the Nereidum Mountain Range in the southern hemisphere of Mars captured by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) aboard ESA's Mars Express orbiter in 2015. The recently reprocessed image reveals evidence of a variety of geological processes that have shaped the area north of the large Argyre impact basin over billions of years. 24)
- Branch-like structures of valleys were carved into the slopes either by the melting snow and ice or runoff from rain in the early period of Mars’ evolution when the planet had abundant water resources.
- Inside the craters in the image, one can see deposits, in some cases concentric, probably created by the sublimation of ice that used to cover the region in the past. Scientists believe water ice might still be present in the region deep under the surface.
- Mass wasting deposits clearly visible in the canyons captured in this image are also a result of glacial processes that had taken place in the area in the past.
Figure 38: The dark brown streak on the left-hand side of the image represents dune fields created by the effects of wind as it transports sand grains over large distances on the surface of Mars. On the north-facing slope of the ridge between the northern part of the dune field and the large filled crater towards the south, one can clearly see recently created alcoves and gullies. These structures are often linked to the melting of ground ice and could point to still existing water ice deposits in the subsurface (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 39: A three-dimensional rendering of the Nereidum Mountain Range in the southern hemisphere of Mars created from data captured by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA's Mars Express orbiter in 2015. The rendering shows a dune field and two large craters with a canyon between them viewed from the west. The rendering was generated by the combination of data from the Mars digital terrain model (DTM), the nadir (downward-looking) channel and the color channels of the HRSC instrument (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 40: This video shows Jezero crater, the landing site of the NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance rover on the Red Planet, based on images from ESA’s Mars Express mission. The planned landing area is marked with an orange ellipse. The animation was created using an image mosaic made from four single orbit observations obtained by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on Mars Express between 2004 and 2008. The mosaic combines data from the HRSC nadir and color channels; the nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface. The mosaic image was then combined with topography information from the stereo channels of HRSC to generate a three-dimensional landscape, which was then recorded from different perspectives, as with a movie camera, to render the flight shown in the video (animation credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO ; Music: Björn Schreiner ; Soundtrack logo: Alicia Neesemann)
- Scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on 30 July 2020 on board an Atlas V rocket, the Perseverance rover will land on 18 February 2021 in Jezero crater.
- An impact crater with a diameter of about 45 km, Jezero is located at the rim of the giant Isidis impact basin. Morphological evidence suggests that the crater once hosted a lake, some 3.5 billion years ago.
- Jezero possesses an inlet- and an outlet channel. The inlet channel discharges into a fan-delta deposit, containing water-rich minerals such as smectite clays. Scientists believe that the lake was relatively long lived because the delta may have required 1 to 10 million years to reach its thickness and size. Other studies conclude that the lake did not experience periods of important water-level fluctuations and that it was formed by a continuous surface runoff. This makes Jezero crater to a prime target for the search for potential signs of microbial life, because organic molecules are very well preserved in river deltas and lake sediments.
- A recent study of the ancient lakeshores, diverse minerals and violent volcanism of Jezero crater based on data from ESA’s Mars Express mission is available here: Mars Express helps uncover the secrets of Perseverance landing site.
• July 29, 2020: A mysteriously long, thin cloud has again appeared over the 20-km high Arsia Mons volcano on Mars. 27)
- A recurrent feature, the cloud is made up of water ice, but despite appearances it is not a plume linked to volcanic activity. Instead, the curious stream forms as airflow is influenced by the volcano’s ‘leeward’ slope − the side that does not face the wind.
Figure 41: These images of the cloud, which can reach up to 1800-km in length, were taken on 17 and 19 July by the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) on Mars Express, which has been studying the Red Planet from orbit for the past 16 years (image credit: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao)
- “We have been investigating this intriguing phenomenon and were expecting to see such a cloud form around now,” explains Jorge Hernandez-Bernal, PhD candidate at the University of the Basque Country (Spain) and lead author of the ongoing study.
- “This elongated cloud forms every martian year during this season around the southern solstice, and repeats for 80 days or even more, following a rapid daily cycle. However, we don’t know yet if the clouds are always quite this impressive”.
- A martian day, or sol, is slightly longer than an Earth day at 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds long. A year at the Red Planet consists of 668 sols, approximately 687 days, so the seasons last for twice as long.
- The southern solstice is the period of the year when the Sun is in the southernmost position in the martian skies, just like 21 December on Earth. In the early mornings during this period, this fleeting cloud grows for approximately three hours, quickly disappearing again just a few hours later.
- Most spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet tend to observe in the afternoon, however Mars Express is in a privileged position to gather and provide crucial information on this unique effect.
- “The extent of this huge cloud can't be seen if your camera only has a narrow field of view, or if you're only observing in the afternoon,” says Eleni Ravanis, a Young Graduate Trainee for the Mars Express mission who works specifically for the VMC instrument.
- “Luckily for Mars Express, the highly elliptical orbit of the spacecraft, coupled with the wide field of view of the VMC instrument, lets us take pictures covering a wide area of the planet in the early morning. That means we can catch it!”
- The Mars Express science team have now named the cloud the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud, AMEC. So, for how long has it been disappearing and reappearing? Why does it only form in the early morning? Stay tuned as scientists continue to investigate, and we reveal more mysteries from Mars.
• July 2, 2020: This movie, based on images taken by ESA’s Mars Express, showcases the 82 km wide Korolev crater on Mars. 28)
- Located in the northern lowlands of the Red Planet, south of the large Olympia Undae dune field that partly surrounds Mars’ north polar cap, this well-preserved impact crater is filled with water ice all year round. The crater’s floor lies two kilometers below its rim, enclosing a 1.8 km thick domed deposit that represents a large reservoir of non-polar ice on Mars.
- Water ice is permanently stable within Korolev crater because the deepest part of this depression acts as a natural cold trap. The air above the ice cools and is thus heavier compared to the surrounding air: since air is a poor conductor of heat, the water ice mound is effectively shielded from heating and sublimation.
- The crater is named after chief rocket engineer and spacecraft designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1907-1966), dubbed the father of Russian space technology. Korolev developed the first Russian intercontinental rocket R7, the precursor of the modern Soyuz rockets that are still operated today. With his rocket and spacecraft design, he was also responsible for the first human-made satellite (Sputnik in 1957) and for the first human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin in 1961).
Figure 42: This movie was created using an image mosaic made from single orbit observations from the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on Mars Express, which was first published in December 2018. The mosaic combines data from the HRSC nadir and color channels; the nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface. The mosaic image was then combined with topography information from the stereo channels of HRSC to generate a three-dimensional landscape, which was then recorded from different perspectives, as with a movie camera, to render the flight shown in the video (video credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 43: This image was created using data from a combination of instruments and spacecraft: NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and its Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA); NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) and Context Camera (CTX); and the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA's Mars Express. It was originally published in November 2019 (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL/ESA)
- Two recent studies based on ESA's Mars Express observations of Jezero crater have shed light on how and when this intriguing area formed – and identified the regions most likely to reveal signs of ancient life.
Figure 44: This topographical map shows the Nili Fossae region of Mars, a part of the planet that hosts the future landing site for NASA's 2020 Mars Perseverance rover: Jezero crater (marked by a white star). The region's wider context on the martian surface is shown to the right of the frame. The colors represent the altitude of the surface, ranging from lower blues and greens to higher oranges and reds (as shown in the key to the top right). This image uses topographic and altimetric data from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor's Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), image credit: L. Mandon et al. (2020)
- NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will search for signs of past life on Mars and collect samples for a future flight to Earth. NASA and ESA are currently working together on mission concepts to bring these samples to Earth by 2031.
- Two studies based on data from another space mission – ESA's Mars Express, orbiting the Red Planet since 2003 – now identify which parts of the rover's landing site are most likely to have preserved ancient signs of life, climate, water, and volcanism. Both studied a part of Mars' surface known as Nili Fossae and, more specifically, a crater within this area named Jezero crater.
- The Jezero crater contains a delta, clear evidence that water once flowed there in the form of an ancient lake, and holds large quantities of both olivine and carbonate minerals. Carbonates form in the presence of water and are known to trap biosignatures, the signatures of life, whereas olivine is present in magmatic rocks and can be used to explore and precisely date Mars' volcanic past.
- "We've known for decades now that Nili Fossae is quite a unique part of Mars, and Jezero crater was chosen as a landing site for the Perseverance rover given this uniqueness," says Lucia Mandon of the Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon (Terre, Planètes, Environnement), France, and lead author of a study into the mineralogy, age, and evolution of the Nili Fossae region.
- "However, while this part of Mars has been well-studied, scientists were still unsure about how and when it formed, or how it came to contain all of this olivine- and carbonate-rich material. In fact, at least six different formation scenarios have been proposed in the last couple of decades."
Figure 45: This image of the martian surface maps the olivine-rich rock of the area surrounding Jezero crater, the future landing site for NASA's 2020 Mars Perseverance rover. It combines spectral data in the near-infrared, thermal radiance, and altimetry from ESA's Mars Express, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and NASA's Mars Odyssey missions. The altitude of the surface is represented as shown in the key to the bottom left, with the depth of the olivine-bearing material absorption bands represented as shown in the key to the top left (image credit: L. Mandon et al. (2020))
- To resolve this uncertainty, Lucia and colleagues analyzed observations of the Nili Fossae region gathered by ESA's Mars Express and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO): a mix of high-resolution images, topographic data, mineralogical data, and thermal data. They found that the olivine-rich bedrock in the region around Jezero crater extends for at least 18,000 km2, and formed around 3.8 billion years ago.
- "One of the most popular formation theories suggests that the olivine-bearing material formed as a sheet of melted rock, created by the giant impact that produced the huge nearby Isidis basin," adds Lucia, "but our timeline reveals that the olivine-rich bedrock formed tens of millions of years or more after this impact."
- "However, we think that this impact made the crust fragile and more prone to volcanism. After reviewing all plausible scenarios, we found that the Nili Fossae region was most likely sculpted by massive eruptions of ash and other material thrown out from giant volcanoes. The erupted volume is colossal: more than 1000 times larger than that of the Vesuvian event that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD."
- This suggests that the common view of Martian volcanism, in which volcanic activity broadly occurs via lava flows with only a few instances of explosive activity, may not be wholly accurate.
Figure 46: This high-resolution 3D model shows terrain on the surface of Mars in the vicinity of the Jezero crater, the future landing site for NASA's 2020 Mars Perseverance rover (image credit: Mars Express, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona; image processing: L. Mandon)
• May 18, 2020: Lava mud flows on Mars. Scientists have long suspected that the 'fire-breathing' volcanoes that spread large quantities of flowing lava over Mars were not the only kind. The numerous mountain cones in the northern hemisphere of the Red Planet may be the result of mud volcanoes. However, until now, researchers have lacked knowledge about the behavior of water-rich mud on the surface of Mars. An unusual laboratory experiment involving the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) has now been able to show how mud flows at very low temperatures and under reduced atmospheric pressure. It behaves in a similar way to very specific lava flows on Earth. The results, which have now been published in the journal Nature Geoscience, add important details to the existing knowledge of Mars and its history, which has been shaped by volcanic activity. 30) 31)
- "We have long been aware that in the early history of Mars, several billion years ago, large amounts of water were released over a short period of time, eroding very large valleys in the landscape, which have long since dried up," explains Ernst Hauber of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof, who was involved in the study. "Extensively eroded masses of fragmented rock were transported through these outflow channels and into the northern lowlands of the planet, where they were quickly deposited. Later, these rocky masses were covered by younger sediments and volcanic rocks." Some Mars researchers had previously suspected that these underground, water-rich sediments could have become liquefied under certain circumstances and been pushed back up to the surface under pressure. In reference to the similar rise of magma, this process, which is well documented in many sedimentary basins on Earth, is referred to as sedimentary volcanism or mud volcanism.
a) Laboratory experiments show that at very low temperatures and under very low atmospheric pressure, mud behaves similar to flowing lava on Earth.
b) Results suggest that tens of thousands of conical hills on Mars, often with a small crater at their summit, could be the result of mud volcanism.
c) Focus: Space, exploration.
Figure 47: A mud volcano on Mars? (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)
Figure 48: Active mud volcanoes on Earth (image credit: CAS/Petr Brož (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Figure 49: Mud volcanoes on Mars? (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Are small volcanic cones the result of mud extrusions?
- Tens of thousands of conical hills populate the northern highlands of Mars, often with a small crater at their summit. These may be the result of mud volcanism. However, the evidence for this is not easy to acquire. This is due to the fact that little is known about the behavior of low-viscosity mud under the environmental conditions on the Martian surface. To fill this knowledge gap, a group of European scientists carried out a series of experiments in a cylindrical low-pressure vessel 90 cm in diameter and 1.8 m long, in which water-rich mud was poured over a cold sandy surface. Apart from the gravity on Mars, which could not be simulated, this experimental setup was somewhat reminiscent of building a large sandcastle under Mars-like conditions.
Figure 50: How does watery-mud move on Mars? Like pahoehoe lava! Exploration of Mars has revealed the presence of large outflow channels which have been interpreted as the products of catastrophic flood events during which a large quantity of water was released from the subsurface. The rapid burial of water-rich sediments following such flooding may have promoted an ideal setting to trigger sedimentary volcanism, in which mixtures of rock fragments and water erupt to the surface in the form of mud (video credit: Geofyzikální ústav AV ČR v. v. i)
- The aim of these unusual experiments was to find out how the changed physical parameters influence the water component of the mud and thus alter its flow behavior. The results came as a surprise. "Under the low atmospheric pressure of Mars, the mud flows behave in much the same way as 'pāhoehoe', or 'ropy', lava, which is familiar from large volcanoes on Hawaii and Iceland," says the lead author of the study, Petr Brož of the Czech Academy of Sciences. These findings were somewhat unexpected, as comparable geological processes on other bodies in the Solar System are thought to occur in a similar way to conventional volcanic processes on Earth. "Our experiments show that even a process as apparently simple as the flow of mud – something that many of us have experienced for ourselves since we were children – would be very different on Mars."
Major impact of low atmospheric pressure
- The key reason for the flow behavior of the mud is the very thin atmosphere of Mars. The pressure is 150 times lower than the pressure at sea level on Earth. This difference has a major impact. Under such conditions, liquid water on the Martian surface is not stable and begins to boil and evaporate. This process absorbs latent heat in the vapor and cools the remaining mud, which then freezes at its surface, forming a crust. In a phase transition, such as during a freezing or thawing process, latent heat is released or absorbed by a material without changing its temperature. “Of course, we already know that liquid water begins to boil sooner under low pressure – that is why, for example, it takes longer to cook pasta on a camping stove on high mountains on Earth," explains Hauber. "However, the impact of this familiar effect on mud has never been investigated in an experiment before. Once again, it turns out that different physical conditions must always be taken into account when looking at apparently simple surface features on other planets. We now know that we need to consider both mud and lava when analyzing certain flow phenomena," adds Hauber.
Figure 51: Did water-rich sediments also reach the Martian surface? Water that flowed over the surface of Mars billions of years ago transported large quantities of sediments to the northern lowlands, where they were later covered by younger sediments and volcanic rocks. Some Mars researchers suspect that these water-rich sediments became liquefied underground and rose back to the surface under pressure – similar to this hot ‘mud spring’ at Bakhar in Azerbaijan (diameter approximately 1.5 meters). Experiments in a low-pressure chamber, in which DLR scientist Ernst Hauber was involved, have now shown that the flow behavior is similar to that of what is referred to as ‘ropy lava’ (or, according to the Hawaiian term for smooth, unbroken lava, also known as ‘ pāhoehoe’ lava), which is at a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius. This implies that mud flows on Mars take a completely different course than those on Earth. This observation could support the assumption that many of the conical hills with central craters discovered in the north of Mars are also mud volcanoes (image credit: CAS/Peter Brosž CC BY-SA 4.0)
- The team of researchers were able to show in detail that the mud flows in the experiment behaved like pāhoehoe lava, with liquid mud spilling from ruptures in the frozen crust, and then refreezing to form a new flow lobe. When mud escapes onto the Martian surface, it is able to flow for some time before it solidifies due to the low temperatures. However, the morphology – the shape of the mud flows – is different from those found on Earth. The research work that is currently being carried out is important for investigations of other planetary bodies, because similar processes may also play a role in cryovolcanic eruptions, in which liquid water comes to the surface, instead of magma or mud, such as on icy moons in the outer Solar System.
• May 14, 2020: Nature is a powerful sculptor – as shown in this image from ESA’s Mars Express, which portrays a heavily scarred, fractured martian landscape. This terrain was formed by intense and prolonged forces that acted upon Mars’ surface for hundreds of millions of years. 32)
- Features on Mars often trick the eye. It can be difficult to tell if the ground has risen up towards you, or dropped away. This is a common phenomenon with impact craters especially, and is aptly named the ‘crater/dome illusion’; in some images, craters appear to be large domes arching up towards the viewer – but look again, and they instead become a depression in the surrounding terrain, as expected.
Figure 52: Topographic view of Tempe Fossae on Mars. This color-coded topographic image shows part of Mars’ surface located northeast of the Tharsis volcanic province, based on data gathered by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 30 September 2019 during orbit 19913. This is a portion of Tempe Fossae – a series of tectonic faults that cuts across Tempe Terra in Mars’ northern highlands. This view is based on a digital terrain model (DTM) of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived; 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. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Upon first glance, it is difficult to tell if ground is rising up, sinking down, or a mix of both. The landscape here is scratched, scored, and wrinkled: ridges slice across the frame, interspersed with the odd impact crater, and the entire region is full of cliffs and chasms.
- The terrain here belongs to the volcanic Tharsis province, also known as Tharsis rise, which is located close to the planet equator, at the boundary between low plains in the Northern hemisphere and highlands in the South, and displays a complex geology originating from the processes involved in its formation.
- Tempe Fossae is a great example of terrain featuring two key martian features: grabens and horsts. In a way, these are opposites of one another – grabens are slices of ground that have dropped down between two roughly parallel faults, while horsts are ground that has been uplifted between faults.
- At most, the grabens seen here reach a few kilometers wide, a few hundred meters deep, and several hundred kilometers long. Both were created by volcanic and tectonic forces acting across the surface of Mars, which fractured the ground and manipulated it into new configurations. Mars Express has observed these features many times before, in regions including Claritas Fossae, Acheron Fossae, and the nearby Ascuris Planum.
Figure 53: This image shows part of Mars’ surface, located northeast of the Tharsis volcanic province, in a wider context. This is Tempe Fossae – a series of tectonic faults that cuts across Tempe Terra in Mars’ northern highlands. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 30 September 2019 during orbit 19913 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
Figure 54: Located just northeast of the colossal Tharsis volcanic-tectonic province on Mars, the landscape shown in this image from ESA’s Mars Express is a mix of faults, elevated ground, deep valleys, and largely parallel ridges, extending both down into the surface and up above the martian crust. This is a portion of Tempe Fossae – a series of tectonic faults that cuts across Tempe Terra in Mars’ northern highlands. This region is a great example of terrain featuring two key martian features: grabens and horsts. In a way, these are opposites of one another – grabens are slices of ground that have dropped down between two roughly parallel faults, while horsts are ground that has been uplifted between faults. Both were created by tremendous volcanic and tectonic forces acting across the surface of Mars, which fractured the ground and manipulated it into new configurations. The surface to the right of the frame is smoother, created as lava flooded the region before cooling and solidifying, and some perpendicular slices across the predominantly parallel ridges can be seen to the left of the frame. As the nearby Tharsis province grew larger, it stretched and stressed the surrounding crust – and these features are evidence of a change in the direction of stress. This image comprises data gathered on 30 September 2019 during orbit 19913. The ground resolution is approximately 15 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 279°E/36°N. 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 any initial visual confusion, this landscape is a mix of faults, elevated ground, deep valleys, and largely parallel ridges, extending both down into the surface and up above the martian crust. The crater/dome illusion is actually just a trick of the light caused by our eyes incorrectly interpreting shadows. Comparing this image to the aforementioned image of Ascuris Planum, a similar terrain, highlights this nicely, demonstrating the importance of lighting conditions in photography.
- Our Earth-bound eyes are accustomed to seeing images lit from above, but this is not the default orientation for spacecraft, which can gather data at all angles of sunlight.
- Mars Express has a peculiar orbit that is not Sun-synchronous. Sun-synchronous orbits pass over the same spot on a planetary surface at roughly the same local time of day on every orbit – for instance, Earth orbiters passing over a certain city at around noon every day. Mars Express, however, does not do this, and can therefore gather data at a wide range of local times on Mars. As a result, it experiences a range of different illumination conditions as it observes the Red Planet, and produces a varied array of observations and snapshots of our planetary neighbor.
Figure 55: This image shows part of Mars’ surface located northeast of the Tharsis volcanic province in 3D when viewed using red-green or red-blue glasses. This is a portion of Tempe Fossae – a series of tectonic faults that cuts across Tempe Terra in Mars’ northern highlands. 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 19913. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at 279ºE/36ºN. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- To the right of the frame (pointing to the planet’s north), the surface becomes significantly smoother, with grabens and horsts almost nowhere to be seen. This smoother profile is a result of lava flooding these features before cooling and solidifying, in-filling and resurfacing this part of Mars.
- While most of the ridges seen here run parallel to one another from the upper left to lower right, there are also a few scratches cutting across in a perpendicular direction. This is an effect of location, as this patch of terrain is just northeast of the well-known Tharsis province, a past hotspot on Mars for substantial volcanic and tectonic activity.
- Tharsis is sizeable. The province measures several thousand kilometers across and five kilometers high on average relative to martian ‘sea level’ – a level that, given the planet’s lack of seas, is arbitrarily defined on Mars based on elevation and atmospheric pressure. It hosts the largest volcanoes in the entire Solar System, ranging from 15 to over 20 km in height.
- As the province grew larger and larger over several hundreds of millions of years, it stretched and stressed the surrounding crust, causing it to fracture and tear in different directions. The perpendicular slices seen in this image are evidence of a change in the direction of stress.
Figure 56: This image shows a part of Mars’ surface located northeast of the Tharsis volcanic province. This is a portion of Tempe Fossae – a series of tectonic faults that cuts across Tempe Terra in Mars’ northern highlands. It comprises data gathered on 30 September 2019 during orbit 19913. The ground resolution is approximately 15 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 279ºE/36ºN. 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. This HRSC stereo imaging was then used to derive a digital elevation model, upon which this oblique view is based (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- While the formation of Tharsis caused tectonic activity locally, as shown by these slices, it also influenced Mars’ crust on a much larger scale and is thought to have had a major influence in forming Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the Solar System. Widespread erosion has occurred in Valles Marineris since its formation, shaping and sculpting the landscape into the canyon system we see today.
- Exploring the geology of Mars is a key objective of Mars Express. Launched in 2003, the spacecraft has been orbiting the Red Planet for over a decade and a half; it has since been joined by the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived in 2016, while the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform are scheduled for launch in 2022.
- The fleet of spacecraft currently at Mars, operated by several space agencies, are able to image the planet’s surface at scales from the global (with a spatial resolution of around ten meters) to the local (spatial resolution of around one meter). This combination allows scientists to characterize geological processes at global, regional, and local scales, enabling them to work towards a fuller understanding of Mars and its intriguing history.
• March 5, 2020: Known for its wide swathes of rippling, textured, gently sloping dunes, the Terra Sabaea region on Mars is home to many fascinating geological features – including the prominent Moreux crater, the star of a new image from ESA’s Mars Express. 33)
- The crater is roughly three kilometers deep, and spans 135 kilometers from edge to edge. While the surrounding material is visible in hues of butterscotch and caramel, the crater’s walls are dark, resembling a smudged ring of charcoal, and dark brown-black dunes cover the crater floor. This darkness is thought to be a result of the dunes comprising sandy material rich in pyroxene and olivine, minerals with a typically dark appearance.
- The dunes and flow features in Moreux crater are intriguing. Many of the features surrounding the central peak and southern region of the crater (to the left of the image) appear to have been formed by substantial and episodic glacial activity over the past few million years. Many other features, most notably the sickle-shaped dunes covering the crater floor, show signs of being eroded or formed by wind-related processes.
Figure 57: This image comprises data gathered on 30 October 2019 during orbit 20014. The ground resolution is approximately 16 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 44ºE/42ºN. 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 Moreux crater on Mars showcases numerous intriguing geological processes and features. It sits at the northern edge of Terra Sabaea, a large area of the Red Planet that is speckled with impact craters and covered in glacial flows, dunes, fretted terrain and intricate ridge networks.
- When compared to other impact craters on both Mars and Earth, Moreux crater appears a little misshapen and messy – the result of ongoing erosion over martian history. Its egg-shaped rim is broken up, its dark walls are ridged, rippled and mottled, and its center features a prominent clustered ‘peak’, created as material from the crater floor rebounded and rose upwards following the initial impact.
- It is difficult to get a sense of scale when viewing this peak from orbit, but Moreux crater’s central peak is sizeable, reaching around two kilometers in height. The crater itself is roughly three km deep, and spans 135 km from edge to edge.
Figure 58: This color-coded topographic image shows a feature on Mars’ surface named Moreux crater, based on data gathered by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 30 October 2019 during orbit 20014. This view is based on a digital terrain model (DTM) of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived; 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 bottom left. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- The range of colors featured in images like this one, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express, reveals much about the composition of a particular region, material or feature.
- In the case of Moreux crater, the color differences are stark: while the surrounding material is visible in hues of butterscotch and caramel, the crater’s walls are dark, resembling a smudged ring of ash or charcoal. Dark brown and black dunes cover the crater floor, while the peak remains a pale yellow-orange. Dark, prominent ejecta, comprising material flung outwards during the crater-forming collision, spread outwards from the crater rim, discoloring and encroaching upon the lighter surrounding terrain.
Figure 59: Perspective view of the Moreux crater on Mars observed on 30 October 2019 during orbit 20014 (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• February 13, 2020: Mars is very much a world of two halves, as this new image from ESA’s Mars Express highlights, showing where these dramatically different regions come together as one. 34)
- The morphology and characteristics of the martian surface differ significantly depending on location. The northern hemisphere of Mars is flat, smooth and, in places, sits a few kilometers lower than the southern. The southern hemisphere, meanwhile, is heavily cratered, and peppered with pockets of past volcanic activity.
Figure 60: Where north meets south: fragmented terrain on Mars. This color-coded topographic image shows a region of Mars’ surface named Nilosyrtis Mensae, based on data gathered by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 29 September 2019 during orbit 19908. This view is based on a digital terrain model (DTM) of the region, from which the topography of the landscape can be derived; 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. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- A transition zone known as ‘dichotomy boundary’ separates the northern lowlands and southern highlands. Large parts of this region are filled with something scientists call fretted terrain: blocky, broken-up, fragmented swathes of terrain where the rough, pockmarked martian south gives way to the smoother north.
- This new image from the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) shows exactly that: a region of fretted terrain named Nilosyrtis Mensae.
- Nilosyrtis Mensae has a labyrinthian appearance, with numerous channels and valleys carving through the terrain. Water, wind and ice been strongly affecting this region, dissecting and eroding the terrain, along with changes in martian geology: valleys have formed over time and sliced across the region, and once-defined impact craters have slowly degraded, their walls and features gradually wearing away.
- The large crater to the right of Figure 61 is an example of this degradation: it has a smooth, rounded appearance, with gently sloping walls, softened edges, and a flat bottom that has been widened and filled by sedimentary material over time. This worn-away morphology reflects both the crater’s advanced age, and the levels of erosion it has undergone since it formed.
Figure 61: This image shows shows a region of Mars’ surface named Nilosyrtis Mensae 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 19908. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at about 69ºE/31ºN. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Such erosion processes also created rounded hills and isolated flat-topped hills, or ‘mesas’, that are visible within the crater and across the region more widely. These stand apart from their surroundings as isolated features, and contribute to the blocky, fractured appearance of fretted terrain.
- Scientists are interested in Nilosyrtis Mensae not only for its location in this intriguing transition zone between north and south, but also for the secrets it could hold about the history of water on Mars.
- Observations of this region by missions such as Mars Express have revealed ridges, grooves and other surface textures indicative of flowing material – most likely ice.
- The climate and atmosphere of ancient Mars allowed ice and snow to accumulate and move around across the planet’s surface.
- Ice is thought to have flowed through the various valleys and across the plateaus in this region, in the form of slow-moving glaciers that swept up debris as they travelled. Such features would be similar to rock glaciers here on Earth: either icy flows covered in layers of mud and sediment, or flowing mixtures of ice, mud, snow and rock interspersed with larger rocks and boulders.
- Studying and characterizing the various processes at play across the surface of Mars is a key aim of Mars Express. Launched in 2003, the spacecraft has now been orbiting the Red Planet for over a decade and a half. Meanwhile, the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) joined in 2016, soon to be joined by the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform, scheduled for launch in July.
Figure 62: This image shows a region of Mars’ surface named Nilosyrtis Mensae. It comprises data gathered on 29 September 2019 during orbit 19908. The ground resolution is approximately 15 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 69ºE/31ºN. 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. This perspective looks over the region from north to south (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 63: This image shows shows a region of Mars’ surface named Nilosyrtis Mensae in wider context. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 29 September 2019 during orbit 19908 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
• January 13, 2020: ESA’s Mars Express has captured beautiful images of the icy cap sitting at Mars’ north pole, complete with bright swathes of ice, dark troughs and depressions, and signs of strong winds and stormy activity. 35)
- The poles of Mars are covered in stacked layers of ice that subtly shift in extent and composition throughout the year.
Figure 64: This image shows part of the ice cap sitting at Mars’ north pole, complete with bright swathes of ice, dark troughs and depressions, and signs of strong winds and stormy activity. The landscape here is a rippled mix of color. Dark red and ochre-hued troughs appear to cut through the icy white of the polar cap; these form part of a wider system of depressions that spiral outwards from the very center of the pole. Visible to the left of the frame are a few extended streams of clouds, aligned perpendicularly to a couple of the troughs. These are thought to be caused by small local storms that kick up dust into the martian atmosphere, eroding scarps and slopes as they do so and slowly changing the appearance of the troughs over time. - This image comprises data gathered on 16 November 2006 during orbit 3670. The ground resolution is approximately 15 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 244ºE/85ºN. 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 upper right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin , CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- During summer, the pole is permanently covered by thick layers of mostly water ice; during winter, temperatures plummet below -125º Celsius and carbon dioxide begins to precipitate and build up as ice, creating a thinner additional layer a couple of meters thick. Winter also brings carbon dioxide clouds, which can obscure the polar features below and make it difficult to see clearly from orbit.
- This view from Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) suffers from very little such cloud cover, and shows the northern polar cap during the summer of 2006.
- The landscape is a rippled mix of color, from the bright whites of water ice to the dark reds and browns of martian dust, and displays a number of interesting phenomena.
Figure 65: Mars' north pole in context. This image shows shows the ice cap at Mars' north pole. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 16 November 2006 during orbit 3670 (image credit: Topography data by MOLA Science team. Reference body for elevations: Mars sphere map compilation by Freie Universität Berlin)
- Dark red and ochre-hued troughs appear to cut through the ice cap. These form part of a wider system of depressions that spiral outwards from the very center of the pole. When viewed on a larger scale, as in the context map, this pattern becomes evident: the rippling troughs curve and bend and slice outwards in an anti-clockwise orientation, wrapping around the pole and creating a pattern akin to zebra stripes.
- These spiralling features are thought to have formed via a mix of processes, the most significant one being wind erosion. It is thought that winds circle radially away from the center of the north pole, moving outwards cyclically to create the spiral pattern we see.
Figure 66: This image shows part of the ice cap at Mars' north pole 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 3670. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at about 244ºE/85ºN. North is to the upper right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- These winds, known as katabatic winds, move cold, dry air downslope under the force of gravity, often originating in areas of higher elevation (such as glaciers or snow-covered plateaus) and flowing down into lower, warmer areas such as valleys and depressions. They are acted upon by the Coriolis force as they move, which causes them to deviate from a straight path and form the aforementioned spiral pattern we see.
- Visible to the left of the frame are a few extended streams of clouds, aligned perpendicularly to a couple of the troughs. These are thought to be caused by small local storms that kick up dust into the martian atmosphere, eroding scarps and slopes as they do so and slowly changing the appearance of the troughs over time.
- The poles, and any active processes taking place in these regions, are particularly interesting areas of Mars. These layers of ice hold information about Mars’ past, particularly concerning how its climate has evolved and changed in the last few millions of years: ice mixes with layers of surface dust and settles at the north and south poles, capturing a snapshot of the planet’s characteristics during that period of history.
- A key goal of HRSC is to explore the various phenomena occurring in the martian atmosphere, such as winds and storms, and the many intriguing geological processes that take place across – and below – the Red Planet’s surface.
- The camera has been returning impressively detailed views of Mars for many years. Mars Express arrived at the Red Planet in late 2003, and has revealed much about the planet and its history – including mapping its surface at resolutions of 10 m/pixel or greater, exploring how wet and humid early Mars may have been, characterizing its amazing volcanoes and bizarre surface features and geography, and probing deeper to determine the structure and components of its sub-surface.
- This aim of characterizing the entirety of the planet and its history will be continued and furthered by the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which arrived at Mars in 2016, and the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform, which will arrive next year.
- This image is published to coincide with the Seventh International Conference on Mars Polar Science and Exploration, which is taking place in Argentina from 13 to 17 January 2020. This is the latest in a series of international and interdisciplinary conferences to share knowledge about the intriguing polar regions of the Red Planet.
• December 12, 2019: ESA’s Mars Express has captured detailed views of the small, scarred and irregularly shaped moon Phobos from different angles during a unique flyby. 36)
- Mars has two moons: Phobos and the smaller and more distant Deimos, named after the Greek mythological personifications of fear (Phobos – hence ‘phobia’) and terror (Deimos).
- Mars Express has explored this duo since it began observing the Red Planet in 2004: it has viewed Phobos with the beautiful rings of Saturn in the background, skimmed past the moon at a distance of just 45 km, used its High Resolution Stereo Camera to take incredibly detailed 360-degree images of Phobos and its intriguingly marked surface, and approached Deimos to produce an array of images and pin down the moon's location and motions.
- A new image sequence from Mars Express now captures Phobos’ motions and surface in detail. The movie comprises 41 images taken on 17 November 2019, when Phobos passed Mars Express at a distance of 2400 km. Mars Express is currently the only spacecraft capable of close encounters with Phobos.
Figure 67: ESA’s Mars Express recently tracked Phobos as the moon passed in front of the spacecraft's camera, capturing detailed views of the small, irregularly shaped body at different angles and stages of the flyby. This sequence comprises 41 images taken by the HRSC on 17 November 2019 during orbit 20,076, when Phobos passed Mars Express at a distance of roughly 2400 km. The images have a resolution of 21 m/pixel. This opportunity allowed the spacecraft to capture many features across the moon’s surface; alongside a number of impact craters (including the large and prominent Stickney crater), one can see a number of linear marks and furrows (video credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 68: Phobos phase angles explained. This image sequence nicely demonstrates the concept of ‘phase angle’: the angle between a light source (in this case, the Sun) and the observer (Mars Express’ HRSC), as viewed from the target object itself (Phobos). The initial phase angle is 17 degrees, drops to almost 0 degrees mid-way through (when Phobos is at its brightest), and then rises to 15 degrees by the end of the animation. - Phase angle, and how it corresponds to what we see, is represented in the animation to the right of the image sequence (video credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- These data nicely illustrate the concept of ‘phase angle’: the angle between a light source (in this case, the Sun) and the observer (Mars Express), as viewed from the target object itself (Phobos). The initial phase angle is 17 degrees, drops to almost 0 degrees mid-way through (when Phobos is at its brightest), and then rises to 15 degrees by the end of the animation.
- To gain a mental image of this trajectory, one can imagine Mars Express observing Phobos from one side, slowly moving across to draw level with it, and then moving away to the other side, drawing an arc in the sky between Phobos and the Sun.
- Images acquired across a range of phase angles, as shown here, are incredibly useful for scientists. Different shadows are cast as the Sun’s position changes relative to the target object: this illuminates and highlights the surface features and enables calculations of feature height, depth and relief, and reveals much about the roughness, porosity and reflectivity of the surface material itself.
- A phase angle of zero degrees occurs when the Sun is directly behind the observer. In this alignment, all of the light illuminating Phobos hits the surface vertically and is thus largely reflected back into space, causing the target object to brighten up noticeably, as seen in the animation, and shadows to disappear. The lowest phase angle in this animation is not precisely zero, but 0.92 degrees.
- This arrangement – of the Sun, Mars Express and Phobos where the latter is observed at a phase angle of near zero – is very rare, and happens only three times a year at most. Other chances to achieve a phase angle of under one will not occur until April and September 2020 (in the latter case, Mars Express may achieve a phase angle of precisely zero).
- As such, Mars Express takes every opportunity to view this small and intriguing moon from this angle, to shed light on its properties, behavior, possible origin, orbital characteristics and location in space – and to probe its potential as a mission destination.
- Phobos may be an unfamiliar world, but the phenomenon shown in the movie is familiar to anyone who has seen a full Moon. To create a full Moon, the Sun, Earth and Moon align in a roughly straight line (although, due to orbital inclinations, an exact line-up is rare, and results in a lunar eclipse). Here the phase angle – the angle between the light source (the Sun) and observer on the surface of the Earth, as viewed from the Moon – is zero, just as in the movie of Phobos. Today, 12 December, marks the last full Moon of 2019. So look up, and think of Mars’ tiny moon Phobos!
Figure 69: This schematic accompanies a new sequence of Phobos images, created as the small martian moon passed in front of ESA’s Mars Express. The images were captured at different phase angles. The phase angle (marked as 'ϕ' in the graphic) is the angle between a light source (in this case, the Sun) and the observer (Mars Express), as viewed from the target object itself (Phobos). In the movie of Phobos, the initial phase angle is 17 degrees (A), drops to almost zero degrees mid-way through (when Phobos is at its brightest, B), and then rises to 15 degrees by the end of the animation (B), image credit: DLR
• November 21, 2019: Where the two hemispheres of Mars meet, the planet is covered in broken-up terrain: a sign that slow-but-steady flows of icy material once forged their way through the landscape, carving out a fractured web of valleys, cliffs and isolated mounds of rock. 37)
Figure 70: This image shows a region of Mars named Deuteronilus Mensae. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 25 February 2018 during orbit 17913 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
- Mars is a planet of two halves. Its hemispheres are drastically different; the smooth northern lowlands sit up to three kilometers below the rugged southern highlands, and the surface in Mars’ northern regions appears to be far younger than the ancient swaths of the south.
- Where these regions meet, they sometimes form a transition area filled with a wide range of intriguing geological features, patterns and processes: a type of landscape unique to Mars known as fretted terrain. Fretted terrain is found in a couple of key areas on Mars, and an especially good example, named Deuteronilus Mensae, can be seen in these images from Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC).
- This landscape shows clear and widespread signs of significant, lasting erosion. As is common with fretted terrain, it contains a mix of cliffs, canyons, scarps, steep-sided and flat-topped mounds (mesa), furrows, fractured ridges and more, a selection of which can be seen dotted across the frame.
- These features were created as flowing material dissected the area, cutting through the existing landscape and carving out a web of winding channels. In the case of Deuteronilus Mensae, flowing ice is the most likely culprit. Scientists believe that this terrain has experienced extensive past glacial activity across numerous martian epochs.
Figure 71: This color-coded topographic view shows a region of Mars named Deuteronilus Mensae. 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 gathered on 25 February 2018 during orbit 17913. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 25.5ºE/44ºN. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- It is thought that glaciers slowly but surely ate away at the plains and plateaus that once covered this region, leaving only a scattering of steep, flat, isolated mounds of rock in their wake.
- Smooth deposits cover the floor itself, some marked with flow patterns from material slowly moving downhill – a mix of ice and accumulated debris that came together to form and feed viscous, moving flows of mass somewhat akin to a landslide or mudflow here on Earth.
- Studies of this region by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have shown that most of the features seen here do indeed contain high levels of water ice. Estimates place the ice content of some glacial features in the region at up to 90%. This suggests that, rather than hosting individual or occasional icy pockets and glaciers, Deuteronilus Mensae may actually represent the remnants of an old regional ice sheet. This ice sheet may once have covered the entire area, lying atop the plateaus and plains. As the martian climate changed this ice began to shift around and disappear, slowly revealing the rock beneath.
Figure 72: Perspective view of Deuteronilus Mensae. This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a region of Mars named Deuteronilus Mensae. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 25 February 2018 during orbit 17913. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 25.5ºE/44ºN. 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.
- Overall, the features seen in these Mars Express images are reminiscent of the rock- and debris-covered glaciers found in cold regions of Earth. Glaciers may actually be relatively common on both past and present-day Mars; recent studies suggest that the planet may have belts of glacial activity above and below its equator, containing huge amounts of ice covered in thick protective layers of dust, and many other areas show signs of having hosted glaciers in the past – just like Deuteronilus Mensae.
- Mars Express has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2003. Using the HRSC, which obtained these new images, the mission has continually mapped the martian surface and characterized various key properties of and phenomena on the planet – from the presence of a planet-wide groundwater system to intricate old river systems, various intriguing surface deposits, giant regional dust storms, spikes of tell-tale gases in the planet’s atmosphere, and much more.
- The mission will continue to explore the Red Planet in collaboration with the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which arrived at Mars in 2016, and the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform, which will arrive in 2021.
Figure 73: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a region of Mars named Deuteronilus Mensae. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 25 February 2018 during orbit 17913. The ground resolution is approximately 13 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 25.5ºE/44ºN. 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 74: This image shows shows a region of Mars named Deuteronilus Mensae 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 17913. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at about 25.5ºE/44N. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• November 13, 2019: In June, NASA’s Curiosity rover reported the highest burst of methane recorded yet, but neither ESA’s Mars Express nor the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter recorded any signs of the illusive gas, despite flying over the same location at a similar time. 38)
- Methane is of such fascination because on Earth a large proportion is generated by living things. It is known that methane has a lifetime of several hundred years before it is broken down by the Sun’s radiation, so the fact that it is detected on Mars suggests it has been released into the atmosphere recently – even if the gas itself was generated billions of years ago.
Figure 75: Key methane measurements at Mars. This graphic summarizes significant measurement attempts of methane at Mars. Reports of methane have been made by Earth-based telescopes, ESA’s Mars Express from orbit around Mars, and NASA’s Curiosity located on the surface at Gale Crater; they have also reported measurement attempts with no or very little methane detected. More recently, the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter reported an absence of methane, and provided a very low upper limit. -In order to reconcile the range of results, which show variations in both time and location, scientists have to understand better the different processes acting to create and destroy methane (image credit: ESA)
- The methane mystery on Mars has had many twists and turns in recent years with unexpected detections and non-detections alike. Earlier this year it was reported that ESA’s Mars Express had detected a signature that matched one of Curiosity’s detections from within Gale Crater.
- A recent spike by Curiosity, measured on 19 June 2019, and the highest yet at 21 ppbv, adds to the mystery because preliminary analysis suggest that Mars Express did not detect any on this occasion. (For comparison, the concentration of methane in Earth’s atmosphere is around 1800 ppbv, meaning that for every billion molecules in a given volume, 1800 are methane.)
- The Mars Express measurements were taken in the martian daytime about five hours after Curiosity’s nighttime measurements; data collected by Mars Express over one day before also did not reveal any signatures. Meanwhile Curiosity’s readings had returned to background levels when further measurements were taken in the following days.
- The Mars Express measurement technique allowing data to be inferred right down to the martian surface with its limit of detection around 2 ppbv.
Figure 76: 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. - 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. - 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 (image credit: ESA)
- The ESA-Roscosmos Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the most sensitive detector for trace gases at Mars, also did not detect any methane while flying nearby within a few days before and after Curiosity’s detection.
- In general, TGO is capable of measuring at parts per trillion levels and accessing down to about 3 km altitude, but this can depend on how dusty the atmosphere is. When measurements were taken at low latitudes on 21 June 2019, the atmosphere was dusty and cloudy, resulting in measurements accessing 20-15 km above the surface with an upper limit of 0.07 ppbv.
- The global lack of methane recorded by TGO is adding to the overall mystery, and corroborating the results of the different instruments is keeping all teams busy.
Figure 77: The story of methane on Mars is a subject of intense debate. On Earth, methane is mainly created by living organisms, but also through natural geological processes. It has a relatively short lifetime of around 400 years – because it is broken down by ultraviolet light – so detecting it on another planet raises exciting questions as to how it is produced. Previous observations of Mars, by both Earth-based telescopes and ESA’s Mars Express, hint at seasonal variations in methane abundance, with concentrations varying with location and time. NASA’s Curiosity rover has also reported methane ‘spikes’, with one corresponding to a detection by Mars Express. Curiously, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, the most sensitive atmosphere analyzer at Mars, has not yet detected any. In order to reconcile the range of results, which show variations in both time and location, scientists have to understand better the different processes acting to create and destroy methane. - This set of infographics highlight’s ESA’s contribution to Mars exploration as we ramp up to the launch of our second ExoMars mission, and look beyond to completing a Mars Sample Return mission (image credit: ESA, S. Poletti)
• 28 October 2019: Mars Express, ESA's first planetary mission, is a true marathon runner among spacecraft. Launched on 2 June 2003, the spacecraft arrived at Mars during the night of 25 December that same year. On 26 October 2019, this spacecraft completed its twenty-thousandth orbit around Mars. Mars Express is in good company in Martian orbit: NASA’s Mars 2001 Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have also been studying the Red Planet for more than 10 years. Odyssey has been in orbit since 2001 and the Reconnaissance Orbiter since March 2006. 39)
- The HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) developed and built by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) in collaboration with German industry, has been photographing the planet's surface on board Mars Express since January 2004 – at resolutions of up to 10 m per pixel, in color and in three dimensions. This is the first global topographic collection of image data for a planet other than Earth. In total, the resistant stereo scanner has recorded 363 GB (GigaByte) of raw data that have been pre-processed on Earth to produce 5.5 GB of scientifically useful image data. The HRSC has recorded 75 percent of the planet’s approximately 150 million km2 surface at image resolutions of 10 to 20 m/pixel.
- The topographic image maps generated using the HRSC are of great scientific benefit. Digital HRSC terrain models are also used when selecting landing sites, such as for NASA's InSight geophysical observatory or the ExoMars (ESA, due to launch in 2020), Curiosity and Mars 2020 (NASA) rovers.
- The orbit of Mars Express is highly elliptical, passing from pole to pole and taking the spacecraft to distances between 240 km to over 10,000 km from the Martian surface. The 'anniversary' of the twenty-thousandth orbit gave researchers in the HRSC experiment team, led by Ralf Jaumann at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, the opportunity to visit Mars during a simulated overflight of various 'chaotic areas', outflow channels and craters to the east of the Valles Marineris canyon, just north of the equator.
Mars Express continued
• 10 October 2019: Mars may seem to be an alien world, but many of its features look eerily familiar – such as this ancient, dried-up river system that stretches out for nearly 700 km across the surface, making it one of the longest valley networks on the planet. 40)
- The area of Mars shown in these new images from ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft lies just south of the planet’s equator, and is known to have been shaped by a mix of flowing water and impacts: events where rocks sped inwards from space to collide with the martian surface.
Figure 78: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a dried-up river valley on Mars named Nirgal Vallis. It comprises data gathered on 16 November 2018 during Mars Express Orbit 18818. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 315ºE/27ºS. 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. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Both of these mechanisms are visible here: a number of impact craters, some large and some small, can be seen speckled across the ochre, caramel-hued surface, and a tree-like, forked channel cuts prominently through the center of the frame.
- This ancient valley system is named Nirgal Vallis, and was once filled with running water that spread across Mars. By exploring the characteristics of the surrounding craters, scientists estimate the system’s age to be between 3.5 and 4 billion years old.
- The part of Nirgal Vallis captured in these images lies towards the western end of the river system, where it is slowly spreading out and dissipating; the eastern end is far less branched and more clearly defined as a single valley, and opens out into the large Uzboi Vallis – the suspected location of a large, ancient lake that has long since dried up.
- Nirgal Vallis is a typical example of a feature known as an amphitheatre-headed valley. As the name suggests, rather than ending bluntly or sharply, the ends of these tributaries have the characteristic semi-circular, rounded shape of an Ancient Greek amphitheatre. Such valleys also typically have steep walls, smooth floors, and, if sliced through at a cross-section, adopt a ‘U’ shape. The valleys pictured here are about 200 m deep and 2 km wide, and their floors are covered in sandy dunes; the appearance of these dunes indicates that martian winds tend to blow roughly parallel to the valley walls.
- We see valleys like this often on Earth, including valleys found in the Chilean Atacama Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and on the islands of Hawaii. Mars also hosts a few of them, with Nanedi Valles and Echus Chasma joining Nirgal Vallis as clear examples of this intriguing feature. Both of these features also resemble terrestrial drainage systems, where meandering, steep-sided valleys – thought to have been formed by free-flowing water – have carved their way through hundreds of kilometers of martian rock, forging through old volcanic plains, lava flows, and material deposited by strong martian winds over time
Figure 79: Nirgal Vallis in context. This image shows a dried-up river valley on Mars named Nirgal Vallis. The area outlined by the bold white box indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 16 November 2018 during orbit 18818 (image credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team)
Figure 80: Topographic view of Nirgal Vallis. This color-coded topographic view shows a dried-up river valley on Mars named Nirgal Vallis. 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 16 November 2018 during orbit 18818. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 315ºE/27ºS. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- Valleys such as Nirgal Vallis are ubiquitous in the low-latitude regions surrounding the martian equator, indicating that these areas once experienced a far milder and more Earth-like climate. Despite the arid, hostile world we see today, Mars is thought to have once been a far warmer and wetter planet – and we see signs of this in the diverse mix of features and minerals found across its surface.
- Scientists believe that Nirgal Vallis formed in a similar way to morphologically similar valleys we see on Earth. As there appear to be no branching, tree-like tributaries feeding into the main valley of Nirgal Vallis, it is likely that water was replenished on ancient Mars by a mix of precipitation and overland flow from the surrounding terrain.
- The system may also have its roots in a process known as groundwater sapping: when water struggles to travel vertically through a medium, and so instead continually seeps laterally through material in layers beneath the surface. We see this kind of mechanism on Earth in environments where surface material is very fine and loose and thus difficult for water to penetrate – largely silty, sandy, unconsolidated, and fine-grained environments, where lower layers of the surface are permeable and friendlier to water than those above.
- The spacecraft captured these observations using its HRSC, an instrument that is mapping the whole surface Mars in full color and at high resolution. Its aim – of characterizing and understanding the Red Planet in its entirety – will be supported and continued by the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which arrived at Mars in 2016, and the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform, which will arrive next year. Together, this ground-breaking fleet will help unlock the mysteries of Mars.
Figure 81: Perspective view of Nirgal Vallis. This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a dried-up river valley on Mars named Nirgal Vallis. This oblique perspective view was generated using a digital terrain model and Mars Express data gathered on 16 November 2018 during Mars Express orbit 18818. The ground resolution is approximately 14 m/pixel and the images are centered at about 315°E/27°S. 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 (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Figure 82: Nirgal Vallis in 3D. This image shows Nirgal Vallis, a dried-up river valley 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 HRSC on ESA’s Mars Express during spacecraft orbit 18818. It covers a part of the martian surface centered at about 315ºE/27ºS. North is to the right (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, , CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• 19 September 2019: This beautiful view from ESA’s Mars Express stretches from the bright, cloud-covered north pole of Mars to the contrasting hues of the northern hemisphere and the cratered terrain in the south. 41)
- Mars Express has been orbiting Mars since 2003. The spacecraft has sent back myriad breathtaking images of our planetary neighbor in the past decade and a half, captured by the probe’s on-board HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) – and this image is no different.
Figure 83: This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows a beautiful slice of the Red Planet from the northern polar cap downwards, and highlights cratered, pockmarked swathes of the Terra Sabaea and Arabia Terra regions. It comprises data gathered on 17 June 2019 during orbit 19550. The ground resolution at the center of the image is approximately 1 km/pixel and the images are centered at about 44ºE/26ºN. 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 up (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
- he spacecraft imaged this slice across the planet’s surface in June 2019, when the camera took several global views. Visible at the top of the frame is Mars’ ethereal north pole: this is permanently covered by a cap of frozen water and carbon dioxide, which thickens in the northern martian winter and thins in the summer.
- The northern polar cap is seen here encircled by bright, eye-catching clouds, tendrils of which snake downwards from the polar region to obscure some of the planet’s northern hemisphere. As this image shows, this patch of Mars is a mix of different tones and colors – a reflection of the different chemical and physical characteristics of the material that makes up the surface. Mars’ two hemispheres are very different in a number of ways.
- Most notably, the northern hemisphere sits several kilometers lower than the southern, and the two are separated by a distinctive, rugged boundary formed of canyons, cliffs and scarps, fractures, valleys, flat-topped mounds known as mesas, and many other features. The northern hemisphere is also characterized by low-lying plains that are largely unmarked by impact craters and thus thought to be relatively young, while the southern hemisphere is ancient, showing signs of intense cratering.
- This separation can be seen here, and is shown especially clearly in the accompanying topographic context map.
Figure 84: Topographic context. This color-coded topographic image shows a slice of the Red Planet from the northern polar cap downwards, and highlights cratered, pockmarked swathes of the Terra Sabaea and Arabia Terra regions. The area outlined in the center of the image indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 17 June 2019 during orbit 19550. This context map is based on data gathered by NASA’s Viking and Mars Global Surveyor missions; 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 bottom left (image credit: NASA/MGS/MOLA Science Team, FU Berlin)
- The dark and dusty young plains of the northern hemisphere sit just below the white northern cap; these meet and merge with a prominent escarpment that slices across the planet, creating a dark scar on the tan-colored surface. Below this, in tones ranging from rusty orange to pale butterscotch, are the southern highlands, featuring more craters than it is possible to count.
- Two main regions are shown here: Arabia Terra (towards the upper left) and Terra Sabaea (to the middle and lower right, forming the main bulk of the highlands visible in this slice).
- The light region stretching out of frame to the bottom right is Hellas Planitia, a plain that is home to the Hellas basin: one of the largest basins identified on Mars – and, in fact, in the Solar System – at 2300 km across.
- The split between Mars’ two hemispheres is known as the martian dichotomy, and remains one of the greatest mysteries about the planet.
- Was it formed due to geological processes within Mars’ mantle? Did the planet’s crust once comprise various moving tectonic plates, as we see on Earth, that pushed against one another to form the dichotomy? Could it have been created by one or more colossal past impacts – or by another process entirely?
- Observations of the boundary zone between the two hemispheres show that this region has been altered over time by wind and water, including by glaciers. Mars is thought to have seen various bursts of glacial activity over the years, where deposits of ice – sometimes hidden beneath layers of soil or dust – form viscous flows that slowly move across the surface, altering it as they go.
- Mars Express was recently joined at Mars by the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived in 2016 and has since been analyzing the martian atmosphere and mapping the planet’s surface. Mars Express and the TGO will soon welcome the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform, which are scheduled for launch in July of 2020.
- This growing fleet will continue ESA’s long-standing presence at Mars, and further our understanding of the planet and its many remaining scientific mysteries – including the martian dichotomy.
Figure 85: A slice of Mars in context: Terra Sabaea and Arabia Terra. This image shows a slice of the Red Planet from the northern polar cap downwards, and highlights cratered, pockmarked swathes of the Terra Sabaea and Arabia Terra regions. The area outlined in the center of the image indicates the area imaged by the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera on 17 June 2019 during orbit 19550. This context map is based on data gathered by NASA’s Viking and Mars Global Surveyor missions (image credit: NASA/Viking, FU Berlin)
• 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. 42)
- 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 86: 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 87: 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 88: 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 89: 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 90: 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 91: 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. 43)
Figure 92: 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 93: 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 94: 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 92, 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 93) 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 94) 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. 44)
- 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 95: 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 96: 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 97: 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 98: 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 99: 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. 45) 46)
- 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 100: 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 101: 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 102: 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. 47)
- 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 103: 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 104: 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) 48)
- 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 105: 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. 47) .
• 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. 49)
- 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 106: 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 107: 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 108: 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 109: 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. 50)
- 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 110: 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 110: 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. 51)
- “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 111: 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 111: 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. 52)
Figure 112: 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 113: 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 114: 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 115: 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 116: 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. 53)
- 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 117: 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 118: 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.” 54)
- 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 119: 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. 55)
- 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 120: 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 121: 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 122: 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 123: 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. 56)
- 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 124: 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. 57)
Figure 125: 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 126 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. 58) 59)
- 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 126: 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 127: 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 128: 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. 60)
Figure 129: 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 129, 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. 61)
Figure 130: 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 130: 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 131: 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 132: 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 133), 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 133: 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 133: 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 134: 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 4: Extended life for ESA's science missions 62)
• 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. 63)
- 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 135: 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) 64)
Figure 136: 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) 65)
Legend to Figure 136: 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 137: 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) 66)
Legend to Figure 137: 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. 67)
- 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 138: 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 139: 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. 68)
- 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 140: 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." 69)
- "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 141: 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. 70)
- 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 142: 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 142: 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 143: 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) 71)
- 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 144: 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 144: 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. 72)
- 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 145: 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. 74) 75)
Figure 146: 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 147: 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. 75)
- 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. 76)
Figure 148: 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 149: 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 150: 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 151: 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 152: MARSIS prospecting for water (image credit: ESA)
• 17 March 2004: Thanks to ESA’s Mars Express, we now know that Mars has vast fields of perennial water ice, stretching out from the south pole of the Red Planet. 77)
- Astronomers have known for years that Mars possessed polar ice caps, but early attempts at chemical analysis suggested only that the northern cap could be composed of water ice, and the southern cap was thought to be carbon dioxide ice.
- Recent space missions then suggested that the southern ice cap, existing all year round, could be a mixture of water and carbon dioxide. But only with Mars Express have scientists been able to confirm directly for the first time that water ice is present at the south pole too.
Figure 153: Map of the Mars south pole, as derived from OMEGA infrared spectral images, showing the bright polar cap, rich in carbon dioxide (light pink), surrounded by water-rich ice, free of carbon dioxide (green to blue), image credit: ESA-OMEGA
- Mars Express made observations with its OMEGA instrument to measure the amounts of sunlight and heat reflected from the Martian polar region. When planetary scientists analyzed the data, it clearly showed that, as well as carbon dioxide ice, water ice was present too.
- The results showed that hundreds of square kilometers of ‘permafrost’ surround the south pole. Permafrost is water ice, mixed into the soil of Mars, and frozen to the hardness of solid rock by the low Martian temperatures. This is the reason why water ice has been hidden from detection until now - because the soil with which it is mixed cannot reflect light easily and so it appears dark.
- However, OMEGA looked at the surface with infrared eyes and, being sensitive to heat, clearly picked up the signature of water ice. The discovery hints that perhaps there are much larger quantities of water ice all over Mars than previously thought.
- Using this data, planetary scientists now know that the south polar region of Mars can be split into three separate parts. Part one is the bright polar cap itself, a mixture of 85% highly reflective carbon dioxide ice and 15% water ice.
- The second part comprises steep slopes known as ‘scarps’, made almost entirely of water ice, that fall away from the polar cap to the surrounding plains. The third part was unexpected and encompasses the vast permafrost fields that stretch for tens of kilometers away from the scarps.
- The OMEGA observations were made between 18 January and 11 February this year, when it was late summer for the Martian southern hemisphere and temperatures would be at their highest. Even so, that is probably only –130 º Celsius and the ice that Mars Express has observed is a permanent feature of this location.
- During the winter months, scientists expect that carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will freeze onto the poles, making them much larger and covering some of the water ice from view.
- Mars Express and OMEGA will now continue looking for water ice and minerals across the surface of the planet. In May, another Mars Express instrument, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS), will begin collecting data, looking for water underground.
- It will be particularly exciting when MARSIS looks at the south pole because, once planetary scientists know how deep the ice reaches, they will be able to calculate exactly how much water there is. Knowing this is very important to understand how Mars evolved and if it ever harbored life.
• 23 January 2004: Mars Express, ESA’s first mission to Mars, will reach its final orbit on 28 January. It has already been producing stunning results since its first instrument was switched on, on 5 January. - The significance of the first data was emphasized by the scientists at a European press conference today at ESA’s Space Operations Center, Darmstadt, Germany. 78)
- I did not expect to be able to gather together - just one month after the Mars Orbit Insertion of 25 December – so many happy scientists eager to present their first results", said Professor David Southwood, ESA Director of Science. One of the main targets of the Mars Express mission is to discover the presence of water in one of its chemical states. Through the initial mapping of the South polar cap on 18 January, OMEGA, the combined camera and infrared spectrometer, has already revealed the presence of water ice and carbon dioxide ice.
Figure 154: OMEGA image of the southern polar cap of Mars acquired on 18 January 2004,in all three bands. At right is the visible image; in the middle is carbon dioxide ice; at left is water ice. The two types of ice are mixed in some areas but distinct in others (image credit: ESA/IAS, Orsay; J-P. Bibring)
Figure 155: OMEGA observation of the South polar cap (image credit: ESA/IAS, Orsay; J-P. Bibring)
- This information was confirmed by the PFS (Planetary Fourier Spectrometer), a new high-resolution spectrometer of unprecedented accuracy. The first PFS data also show that the carbon oxide distribution is different in the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars.
Figure 156: PFS shows different CO2 distribution in the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars (image credit: ESA, CNR)
- The MaRS (Mars Radio Science Experiment) instrument, a sophisticated radio transmitter and receiver, emitted a first signal successfully on 21 January that was received on Earth through a 70- meter antenna in Australia after it was reflected and scattered from the surface of Mars. This new measurement technique allows the detection of the chemical composition of the Mars atmosphere, ionosphere and surface.
- ASPERA (Analyzer of Space Plasmas and Energetic Atoms), a plasma and energetic neutral atoms analyzer, is aiming to answer the fundamental question of whether the solar wind erosion led to the present lack of water on Mars. The preliminary results show a difference in the characteristics between the impact of the solar wind area and the measurement made in the tail of Mars. Another exciting experiment was run by the SPICAM instrument (an ultraviolet and infrared spectrometer) during the first star occultation ever made at Mars. It has simultaneously measured the distribution of the ozone and water vapor, which has never been done before, revealing that there is more water vapor where there is less ozone.
- ESA also presented astonishing pictures produced with the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). They represent the outcome of 1.87 million km2 of Martian surface coverage, and about 100 GB of processed data. This camera was also able to make the longest swath (up to 4000 km) and largest area in combination with high resolution ever taken in the exploration of the Solar System.
Figure 157: This picture was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) onboard ESA's Mars Express orbiter, in color and 3D, in orbit 18 on 15 January 2004 from a height of 273 km. The location is east of the Hellas basin at 41º South and 101º East. The area is 100 km across, with a resolution of 12 m per pixel, and shows a channel (Reull Vallis) once formed by flowing water. The landscape is seen in a vertical view, North is at the top (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
• 19 January 2004: The image of Figure 158 shows a portion of a 1700 km long and 65 km wide swath which was taken in south-north direction across the Grand Canyon of Mars (Valles Marineris) from two perspectives. It is the first image of this size that shows the surface of Mars in high resolution (12 m/pixel), in color and in 3D. 79)
Figure 158: This HRSC image was acquired on 14 January 2004 on board ESA’s Mars Express orbiter under the responsibility of the Principal Investigator Prof. Gerhard Neukum. It was processed by the Institute for Planetary Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), also involved in the development of the camera, and by the Institute of Geosciences of the FU (Freie Universität) Berlin. The image shows a portion of a 1700 km-long and 65 km-wide swath taken in the south-to-north direction across the huge Valles Marineris canyon (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin; G. Neukum)
Figure 159: This picture was taken by the HRSC onboard ESA's Mars Express orbiter, in color and 3D, in orbit 18 on 14 January 2004. It shows a vertical view of a mesa in the true colours of Mars. The summit plateau stands about 3 km above the surrounding terrain. The original surface was dissected by erosion, only isolated mesas remained intact. The large crater has a diameter of 7.6 km (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) 80)
Figure 160: This picture was taken by the HRSC aboard ESA's Mars Express, in color and 3D, during orbit 18 on 14 January 2004 from a height of 275 km. The location is in Valles Marineris at 5º North and 323º East. The area is 50 km across, at a resolution of 12 m/pixel, and shows mesas and cliffs as well as flow features which indicate erosion by the action of flowing water. The landscape is seen in a vertical view, with north at the bottom (image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) 81)
• Following spacecraft commissioning in January 2004, most instruments began their own calibration and testing, in the process acquiring scientific data. This phase lasted until June 2004, when all the instruments but one began routine operations after the payload commissioning review. The deployment of the MARSIS radar antennas, however, was postponed. The late deployment was initially planned to maximize daylight operations of the other instruments before the pericenter naturally drifts to southern latitudes, which coincides with the nightime conditions required for subsurface sounding by MARSIS. The nominal lifetime of the orbiter is a martian year (687 days), with a potential extension by another martian year to complete global coverage and observe all seasons twice over (Ref. 1).
Mars Express continued
Sensor complement (HRSC, ASPERA, PFS, OMEGA, MARSIS, MaRS, SPICAM)
Table 5: The Mars Express scientific experiments (Ref. 1)
The lander’s scientific payload totalled less than 10 kg, shared between six instruments and two dedicated tools to sample the surface and subsurface materials of Mars, plus a robotic sampling arm with 5 degrees-of-freedom. Two were mounted directly on the lander platform: the Gas Analysis Package and the Environmental Sensor Suite. The others were housed within an innovative structure called the Payload Adjustable Workbench (PAW) at the end of the robotic sampling arm: the Stereo Camera System, Microscope, X-ray Spectrometer and Mössbauer Spectrometer, together with a set of tools that included the Rock Corer Grinder, the PLanetary Underground TOol and other support equipment such as a sampling spoon, a torch and a wide-angle mirror. The PAW also carried one of the ESS sensors. The science-payload-to-landed-structure ratio is about 1/3, the highest so far of any planetary lander.
Figure 161: Mars Express with the Beagle 2 capsule still attached. 1: MARSIS. 2: HRSC. 3: OMEGA. 4: PFS. 5: SPICAM. 6: ASPERA. 7: Beagle 2. (MaRS requires no dedicated hardware), image credit: ESA
HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera)
The HRSC, originally developed for the Russian-led Mars-96 mission, was selected as part of the Orbiter payload for ESA’s Mars Express mission. The HRSC is a pushbroom scanning instrument with nine CCD line detectors mounted in parallel in the focal plane. Its unique feature is the ability to obtain near-simultaneous imaging data of a specific site at high resolution, with along-track triple stereo, four colors and five different phase angles, thus avoiding any time-dependent variations of the observational conditions. An additional Super-Resolution Channel (SRC) – a framing device – will yield nested images in the meter-resolution range for detailed photogeologic studies. The spatial resolution from the nominal periapsis altitude of 250 km will be 10 m/pixel, with an image swath of 53 km, for the HRSC and 2.3 m/pixel for the SRC. During the mission’s nominal operational lifetime of 1 martian year (2 Earth years) and assuming an average HRSC data transfer share of 40%, it will be possible to cover at least 50% of the martian surface at a spatial resolution of ≤ 15 m/ pixel. More than 70% of the surface can be observed at a spatial resolution of ≤ 30 m/pixel, while more than 1% will be imaged at better than 2.5 m/ pixel. The HRSC will thus close the gap between the medium- to low-resolution coverage and the very high-resolution images of the Mars Observer Camera on the Mars Global Surveyor mission and the in situ observations and measurements by landers. 82) 83) 84) 85)
The HRSC will make a major contribution to the study of martian geosciences, with special emphasis on the evolution of the surface in general, the evolution of volcanism, and the role of water throughout martian history. The instrument will obtain images containing morphologic and topographic information at high spatial and vertical resolution, allowing the improvement of the cartographic base down to scales of 1:50,000. The experiment will also address atmospheric phenomena and atmosphere-surface interactions, and will provide urgently needed support for current and future lander missions as well as for exobiological studies. The goals of HRSC on Mars Express will not be met by any other planned mission or instrument.
HRSC is a multi-sensor pushbroom instrument comprising multiple CCD (Charge Coupled Device) line sensors mounted in parallel for simultaneous high-resolution stereo, multicolor and multi-phase imaging of the martian surface. An additional Super Resolution Channel provides frame images embedded in the basic HRSC swath at five times greater resolution.
"The strength of HRSC is to perform high resolution digital terrain models of the martian surface in order to provide topographic context for the geoscientific evaluation of surface processes in space and time,” says Ralf Jaumann, HRSC Principal Investigator from the Institute of Planetary Research, DLR, Berlin, Germany.
Figure 162: The HRSC on board ESA's Mars Express will image the entire planet in full color, 3D and with a resolution of about 10 m. Selected areas will be imaged at 2 m resolution. One of the camera's greatest strengths will be the unprecedented pointing accuracy achieved by combining images at the two different resolutions (image credit: DLR/FU Berlin/ESA 2003)
Legend to Figure 162: The camera head is the light grey unit in the middle and the top rectangular aperture. The SRC (Super Resolution Channel) is the black cylindrical aperture at lower right. The camera head and SRC together measure 515 x 300 x 260 mm. The Digital Unit is the black box at the back. The complete HRSC has a mass of 20.4 kg and consumes about 48.7 W with both camera and SRC in operation.
The Camera Unit consists of: 86)
• The Instrument Frame, which is the supporting structure for the Camera Head and the SRC and provides thermal decoupling from the spacecraft and thermal stability
• The Camera Head, comprising the objective lens with its baffle and the optical bench, which serves as the central structure and connects the objective lens with the focal plate containing the Focal Plate Modules and the Front End Electronics
• The SRC (Super Resolution Channel), mounted within the Instrument Frame.
The Digital Unit comprises a power converter supplying the digital processing electronics and the sensor electronics, a signal interface to the spacecraft, an instrument control processor and a data compression unit, all mounted in a single enclosure.
High Resolution Camera Head: The High Resolution Camera Head contains the optics, the optical bench, the spectral filters, the CCD line sensors, the sensor electronics, and a thermal control system.
The optics are of Apo-Tessar objective design with a focal length of 175 mm and f = 5.6, and are mounted in a titanium housing. The transmissivity of the optics varies from 0.37 for the blue channel (440 nm) to 0.68 in the panchromatic range.
The HRSC Camera Head contains nine CCD line sensors mounted in parallel for operation in pushbroom mode. Pushbroom or linear array sensors image a line on the planet surface perpendicular to the ground track of the spacecraft and rely on the orbital motion of the spacecraft to reposition them as they record a sequence of images known as an image swath. HRSC simultaneously provides high-resolution stereo, multicolor and multi-phase images of the Martian surface by delivering nine superimposed image swaths.
The Camera Head sensor electronics consists of three Focal Plate Modules (FPM), each of which contains three CCDs including drivers and preamplifiers, and a Front End Electronics (FEE) unit comprising four signal chains, nine focal plate controllers and one power distribution unit.
Each of the nine CCD linear arrays is made up of 5184 seven-micron square pixels, which correspond to ten meter square pixels on-ground for a spacecraft altitude of 250 km. By multiplexing the nine CCD sensors, the signal can be switched into one of the four signal chains. Signal conditioning comprises low pass filtering, correlated double sampling and programmable attenuation and gain selection. The conditioned signals undergo analogue to digital conversion before being transmitted to the instrument's Digital Unit.
Super Resolution Channel: The Super Resolution Channel (SRC) consists of a set of optics, a CCD array detector and the associated signal electronics.
The SRC optical system is a Matsukov-Cassegrain telescope with a focal length of 972 mm, positioned with its axis parallel to the optical axis of the HRSC Camera Head. The SRC sensor is a CCD array of 1024 x 1032 with 9 µm square pixels, which correspond to 2.3 m square pixels on-ground for a spacecraft altitude of 250 km.
The SRC has a mechanical interface with the HRSC Camera Head and an electrical interface with the HRSC Digital Unit. It has no direct interface to Mars Express and is treated by the spacecraft as an additional HRSC channel.
Multi Sensor Concept: The multi sensor concept of the HRSC combines stereo, multispectral and multi-phase imaging. High-resolution images from the SRC can be embedded in the pushbroom images.
Stereo imaging is performed using nadir-directed, forward looking (+18.9°), and aft-looking (-18.9°) line sensors with a spectral range of 675 ± 90 nm. Known as triple panchromatic along-track stereo, this technique permits robust stereo reconstruction by on-ground digital processing and rectification through attitude reconstruction, feature matching and bundle adjustment, followed by the generation of digital terrain models and higher-level products. In general, the nadir-looking channel delivers the highest resolution images, while the two outer stereo channel images will be transmitted at lower resolution after pixel summation.
Multispectral imaging is implemented using four additional line sensors for the blue (440 ± 45 nm), green (530 ± 45 nm), red (750 ± 20 nm) and near infrared (970 ± 45 nm) color ranges. These color images cover the same areas as the panchromatic triple stereo images and will be matched geometrically to the nadir channel panchromatic swath by a process involving digital rectification through post-facto altitude reconstruction. In general, the multispectral images will be artificially decreased in spatial resolution by on-board pixel summation for lower data rates and better signal-to-noise characteristics, giving rise to data entities referred to as macro pixels.
Two additional panchromatic line sensors having inclined forward and backward viewing directions perform multi-phase imaging. These sensors complement the information contained in the triple stereo channels and allow the determination of photometric surface characteristics. The data from these channels will normally be transmitted at lower resolution by pixel summation.
The nine line sensing channels can be allocated to one of four signal chains. Each chain can be operated independently, offering great flexibility in the processing of the data.
When the SRC is operated, one of the four signal chains is dedicated exclusively to SRC and the line sensors use the remaining three signal chains.
Pushbroom Observations and Three Line Stereo Imaging: The Camera Head with its nine CCD line sensors is operated according to the pushbroom principle:
As the spacecraft moves along its ground track, all nine CCD line sensors are exposed for a chosen exposure time and at a selected scan frequency in such a way that a contiguous image strip, having no gaps between adjacent lines, is generated. The exposure time and the scan frequency are closely connected, with the readout time between adjacent lines being negligible. Nine independent image strips are generated. The size of an image strip is defined by the number of pixels per line and the acquisition duration. The cross track dimension (swath width) changes with spacecraft altitude whereas the along track size (strip length) is limited only by spacecraft resources such as memory available to store observation data and allocated downlink capacity.
In order to guarantee square pixels the scan frequency has to be varied with changing cross-track pixel size. Thus, the scan frequency depends on the cross track pixel size, which in turn depends on the spacecraft altitude. As a result the instrument data rate changes with spacecraft altitude, reaching its maximum at pericenter. The gain of the HRSC electronics is varied with the changing scan frequency in order to compensate for the variations in the amount of light reaching the CCDs as the exposure duration changes. For a spacecraft velocity over ground at pericenter of 4.3 km s-1 the scan frequency is 425 Hz. The scan frequency decreases as the spacecraft altitude increases.
During normal HRSC imaging, nadir pointing of the spacecraft is required. Off-track pointing, where the spacecraft is turned to position the instrument line-of-sight to one side of the ground track, may be used for the acquisition of special targets.
The nine CCD line sensors of the Camera Head are located behind a single optical system and each sensor sees the planetary surface with a different viewing angle, which forms the basis for stereo imaging.
Each image point is seen from three different viewing angles, forward-looking, nadir-direction and aft- looking. Given an accurate knowledge of the position and attitude of the spacecraft at the time of image acquisition, the absolute three-dimensional position of objects in the images can be calculated.
The distance on ground spanned by the stereo viewing angle (nadir to forward-looking or nadir to aft-looking, both 18.9º) is called base length. For in-track stereo reconstruction a minimum image strip length of three base lengths is required. At pericenter, this corresponds to an imaging duration of two minutes. To perform a robust stereo reconstruction over mosaics consisting of adjacent image swaths, a sideways overlap of about 20% of the swath width is required.
Table 6: HRSC characteristics
ASPERA-3 (Analyzer of Space Plasmas and Energetic Atoms)
The ASPERA-3 instrument of Mars Express is designed to study the solar wind-Mars atmosphere interaction and to characterize the plasma and neutral gas environment in near-Mars space through energetic neutral atom (ENA) imaging and local charged-particle measurements. The studies address the fundamental question: how strongly do the interplanetary plasma and electromagnetic fields affect the martian atmosphere? This question is directly related to the problem of martian dehydration. 87) 88)
The scientific objectives of the Mars Express Orbiter mission are to study the subsurface, surface and atmosphere of Mars, as well as the interaction of the atmosphere with the interplanetary medium. ASPERA-3 will fulfil the last objective by:
- remote measurements of energetic neutral atoms (ENAs) in order to (a) investigate the interaction between the solar wind and the martian atmosphere, (b) characterize quantitatively the impact of plasma processes on atmospheric evolution, and (c) obtain the global plasma and neutral gas distributions in the near-Mars environment;
- in situ measurements of ions and electrons to (a) complement the ENA images (electrons and multi-charged ions cannot be imaged), (b) study local characteristics of the plasma (dynamics and fine structure of boundaries), (c) provide the undisturbed solar wind parameters required for interpreting ENA images.
The ASPERA-3 (Analyzer of Space Plasmas and Energetic Atoms) instrument is made up of two components:
• the Main Unit, comprising the mechanical scanner, digital processing unit (DPU), Neutral Particle Imager (NPI), Neutral Particle Detector (NPD) and Electron Spectrometer (ELS)
• the Ion Mass Analyzer (IMA), mounted separately.
Figure 163: ASPERA-3 Main Unit with the ELS protective cover removed. The NPI particle entrance and the two NPD entry ports are protected by red covers (image credit: Swedish Institute of Space Physics)
Mechanical Scanner: The mechanical scanner sweeps the three sensors mounted on it through 180 degrees to give the ASPERA-3 instrument 4π steradians (unit sphere) coverage when the spacecraft is 3-axis stabilized. The scanner is equipped with two stepper motors, which turn a worm screw. The screw drives a worm wheel, which is attached to the moving part of the scanner. The scanner payload can be turned to any arbitrary angle or perform continuous scanning. The operational rotation rates are 1.5, 3.0 and 6.0 degrees per second. The system offers an angular positioning accuracy of 0.2 degrees.
Digital Processing Unit: The Digital Processing Unit's main task is to control the sensors and the mechanical scanner. The DPU processes, compresses and stores the sensor data and forwards it (together with housekeeping data) to the spacecraft telemetry system. It also receives and implements commands sent to the ASPERA-3 instrument by the spacecraft telecommand system.
The primary design drivers for the Digital Processing Unit (DPU) are optimum use of the allocated telemetry rate and correct handling of telecommands. The ASPERA-3 instrument makes extensive use of sophisticated lossless data compression to enhance the scientific data yield. The principal compression method used is based on the Rice algorithm, an adaptive compression technique that remains efficient over a wide range of input data entropy conditions. This is achieved by employing multiple encoders, each of which is optimized to compress data in a particular entropy range. The structure of the algorithm also permits a simple interface to data packetization schemes, such as those used for space data communications, without the need to carry auxiliary information across packet boundaries.
Neutral Particle Imager: In the Neutral Particle Imager, incoming particles pass between two 150 mm diameter discs, which are separated by 3 mm and have a 5 kV potential between them. Charged particles are deflected by the electric field and captured, but neutral particles pass between the discs. The space between the discs is divided into 32 sectors by plastic spokes, forming 32 azimuth collimators with an aperture of 9 degrees by 18 degrees each. Neutrals that pass through the deflector system hit a 32-sided conical target at a grazing angle of incidence (20 degrees). The interaction between the neutral particles and the target results in production of secondary electrons and ions, and / or reflection of the primary neutrals. The particles leaving the target are detected by a Micro Channel Plate (MCP) stack with 32 anodes. The signal from the MCP gives the direction of the primary incoming neutral particle. The MCP is operated in such a way as to detect sputtered ions of the target material, ions resulting from stripping of the primary neutrals and neutrals reflected from the target surface. In order to improve the angular resolution and collimate the particles leaving the interaction surface, 32 separating walls are attached to the target, forming a star-like structure. This configuration allows the particles to experience multiple reflections and reach the MCP. The target is specially coated to prevent incoming ultraviolet photons that strike it from producing erroneous results.
The Neutral Particle Imager covers 4π steradians in one 180º sweep by the mechanical scanner and produces an image of the ENA distribution in the form of an azimuth x elevation matrix. The direction vector of 32 elements is read out once every 62.5 ms.
Neutral Particle Detector: The Neutral Particle Detector consists of two identical pinhole cameras each with a 90º Field of View (FoV) in the instrument azimuth plane and arranged to cover a FoV of 180º. Particles approaching the pinholes pass between a pair of quadrant deflector plates separated by 4.5 mm and with and 8 kV potential between them. Charged particles with energies up to 70 keV are deflected, while neutrals proceed into the camera. The deflector plates also function as a collimator in the instrument elevation direction.
The collimated Energetic Neutral Atom (ENA) beam emerging from the 4.5 x 4.5 mm pinhole hits a target at a grazing angle (20 º) and causes secondary electron emission. The secondary electrons are detected by one of two Micro Channel Plate (MCP) electron multiplier assemblies. The MCP output provides a start signal to the electronics that measures the time of flight of the ENAs over a fixed distance. The incoming ENAs are reflected from the target nearly specularly and travel to a second target. Again, secondary electrons are produced and detected by three more MCPs, which pass a stop signal to the time of flight electronics. The time of flight between the two targets gives the velocity of the incoming particle. Which of the three 'stop' MCPs detects the incoming particle determines its (instrument relative) azimuth direction.
Since secondary electron yield depends on both incident particle mass and velocity, the mass can be determined, given that the velocity is known, by analyzing the height distribution of the pulses from the MCPs.
The effects of ultraviolet radiation are suppressed by coating the targets appropriately and checking for coincidence between the start and stop signals used for the time of flight calculations.
As the mechanical scanner moves the NPD through 180º, a 2π steradians (half sphere) coverage of the incident particle field is obtained.
Electron Spectrometer: The Electron Spectrometer determines the energy spectrum of incoming electrons in each of sixteen 22.5º sectors.
The Electron Spectrometer is based around a spherical section electrostatic analyzer of 'top hat' design. The electrostatic analyzer consists of two concentric hemispherical electrodes, the outer of which has a central hole, through which electrons are admitted, covered by the 'top hat' and collimator. Electrons arriving from any azimuth angle and within the elevation field of view of the collimator pass under the 'top hat' and are deflected through the central hole in the outer hemisphere by a positive potential on the inner hemisphere. The electrostatic field between the hemispheres will deflect electrons having an energy in a particular range such that they travel between the electrodes. Electrons with energies outside the selected range will be captured.
These energy band filtered electrons exit the annular gap between the hemispheres and hit a Micro Channel Plate (MCP) electron multiplier. Beyond the MCP, the electrons strike one of sixteen anodes, each defining a 22.5º sector of incident azimuth angle.
By varying the electrostatic potential between the hemispheres of the electrostatic analyzer, the energy of the electrons selected by the filter can be changed. The voltage applied to the inner hemisphere is swept once every four seconds and the number of anode hits per sample interval is recorded to give an energy spectrum for the incoming electrons in each sector. As the ELS sensor is moved through 180º by the mechanical scanner, a complete 4π steradians (whole sphere) angular distribution of electrons is measured.
Ion Mass Analyzer: The Ion Mass Analyzer determines the mass spectrum of incoming ions in a selectable energy range. The mass range and resolution of the spectrum are also selectable.
Ions arriving at the IMA pass through an outer, grounded grid and enter the deflection system. The deflection system comprises two curved, charged plates that deflect ions arriving in the instrument elevation range from 45º above to 45º below instrument azimuth plane and from any azimuth angle into the entrance of the electrostatic analyzer.
The electrostatic analyzer consists of two concentric hemispheres with a variable electric field between them. Ions that lie within the energy pass band of the analyzer travel between the hemispheres, exit the annular space separating them, and travel on towards the magnetic mass analyzer. The electrostatic potential between the hemispheres determines the energy range of the ions that pass through the analyzer.
In the magnetic mass analyzer, the ions pass through a static, cylindrical magnetic field, which deflects light ions towards the center of the cylinder more than heavy ones. An electrostatic potential can be applied between the electrostatic analyzer and the magnet assembly to accelerate the ions. Varying this potential allows selection of the mass range to be analyzed and the mass resolution.
As the ions leave the magnetic mass analyzer they hit a Micro Channel Plate (MCP). The electrons exiting the MCP are detected by an imaging anode system. A system of 32 concentric rings measures the radial impact position, which corresponds to ion mass and 16 sector anodes measure azimuthal impact position, which corresponds to ion azimuth angle.
Figure 164: ASPERA-3 Ion Mass Analyzer with red protective cover removed to expose the particle entrance (image credit: Swedish Institute of Space Physics)
PFS (Planetary Fourier Spectrometer)
From space and Earth-based observations so far, we know that the Martian atmosphere is about one hundred times less dense than the Earth's at ground level, that it's composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide (CO2) with trace to small amounts of other gases, and that atmospheric temperatures range from 298 K (+25°C) at the equator to 140 K (-130° C) at the winter pole. We also know that the atmosphere contains a lot of dust. 89) 90)
But there are many gaps in our knowledge. We still don't know, for example, how temperature and pressure vary with altitude, what the global circulation patterns are, how the composition of the atmosphere varies with time and place, and what all the trace constituents are. We also don't know for sure how much dust there is in the atmosphere, how it's transported there, what it's made of and how it affects the Martian weather. The Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on board Mars Express will help find the answers to some of these outstanding questions.
PFS is an infrared spectrometer optimized for atmospheric studies and covering the wavelength range 1.2 to 45 µm in two channels with a boundary at 5 µm. The spectral resolution of the instrument is better than 2 cm-1. The instrument field of view is about 2º FWHM (Full Width, Half Maximum) for the Short Wavelength (SW) channel and 4º FWHM for the Long Wavelength (LW) channel. These fields of view correspond to a spatial resolution of ten kilometers for the SW channel and 20 kilometers for the LW channel when Mars is observed from a height of 300 kilometers (the nominal height of the pericenter). 91)
PFS is equipped with a pointing device, which enables it to receive incoming radiation from the surface of Mars or to perform calibration measurements by pointing to a reference black body of known temperature or to deep space.
Figure 165: PSF interferometer: A close up of the interferometer at the heart of the PFS instrument (image credit: ESA/ASI/INAF (Formisano))
The incident radiation arrives from the pointing device and is divided into two beams by a dichroic mirror and then filtered before being directed into the two interferometers. The interferometers are of the double pendulum type and are positioned with their planes of operation one above the other so that a single motor can be used to move both pendulums. An optical reference channel controls the pendulum motion by passing light from a laser diode through the same optics as the radiation that is being analysed. The reference channel also generates the sampling signal for the analogue to digital converters that process the detector signals, triggering one sample for each 150 nm of retro-reflector motion. The interferometers are extremely sensitive to optomechanical distortions and the interferometer module must be very rigid and thermally stable to minimise these effects.
The instrument is able to perform real time Fast Fourier Transform computations in order to select the spectral range of interest for data transmission to Earth
Table 7: Summary of PFS characteristics
OMEGA (Observatoire pour la Minéralogie, l'Eau, les Glaces et l'Activité)
The Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer (OMEGA) builds up maps of the surface mineral composition from the visible and infrared light reflected from the planet's surface in the wavelength range of 0.5-5.2 µm. As the light reflected from the surface passes through the atmosphere before entering the instrument, OMEGA also measures the atmospheric composition.
"We want to know the iron content of the surface, the water content of the rocks and clay minerals and the abundance of non-silicate materials such as carbonates and nitrates. These measurements would allow us to reconstruct the history of the planet," says Jean-Pierre Bibring, OMEGA Principal Investigator from the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Orsay, France. 92) 93) 94)
OMEGA, derived from the Mars-96 spare model, is a visible and near-IR mapping spectrometer operating in the wavelength range 0.38-5.1 µm. It will provide global coverage of Mars by the end of the nominal mission at medium resolution (1-5 km) from orbital altitudes between 1000 km and 4000 km, and higher-resolution (a few hundred meters) snapshots of selected areas, amounting to at least a few percent of the surface. OMEGA is characterizing the composition of surface materials, studying the time and space distribution of atmospheric CO2, CO and H2O, identifying the aerosols and dust particles in the atmosphere, and monitoring the surface dust transport processes. It is contributing greatly to understanding the evolution of Mars from geological time scales to seasonal variations and is giving unique clues for understanding the H2O and CO2 cycles throughout martian evolution.
We have little more than a general knowledge of the surface composition of Mars. The north is made largely of a silica-rich volcanic rock (felsic) and the south of basaltic rock relatively poor in silica (mafic); the soil and surface layer of exposed rocks contains oxides of iron, which give the planet its reddish color. Going beyond this general description to identify particular minerals or elements at particular points on the surface, has so far proved beyond the scope of remote-sensing instruments. None has yet flown with sufficient spatial resolution for the task. That will change, however, when Mars Express carries the Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer (OMEGA) into Martian orbit. 95)
Using the fact that different materials absorb and radiate light at different wavelengths, OMEGA will build up a map of surface composition by analyzing sunlight that has been absorbed and re-emitted by the surface. The instrument will also glean information on the composition from the wavelengths of infrared radiation given off as the surface cools. As radiation travelling from the surface to the instrument must pass through the atmosphere, OMEGA will also detect wavelengths absorbed by some atmospheric constituents, in particular dust and aerosols.
The OMEGA instrument has a mass of 29 kg.
Figure 166: The flight model of OMEGA (image credit: Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, OMEGA collaboration)
As Mars Express proceeds along its orbit, OMEGA will gradually build up a map of the planet in squares, or pixels, whose sides range from 4 km to 300 m in length. During the mission's lifetime, a spectral map of the entire surface will be generated at 1-4 km resolution and selected sites, making up 2-5% of the Martian surface, will be mapped at 300 m resolution. The higher resolution is available only when the spacecraft is at the lowest point in its orbit, hence its restriction to a limited area of the Martian surface. "In each channel, we make a spectrometer and an imager and couple the two. On each resolved pixel, we will have the entire spectrum from the visible to the IR," says Jean-Pierre Bibring from the IAS (Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale), Orsay, France and Principal Investigator for OMEGA.
OMEGA's high spatial resolution is unprecedented. This and its spectral range give it the ability to pinpoint specific minerals on Mars more accurately than any instrument on a previous spacecraft. "We want to see not only that there are silicates, but to determine their class - whether they are in the form of feldspar, pyroxene, olivine, for example. We also want to know the iron content of the surface, the oxidation level of the iron, the hydration of the rocks and clay minerals and the abundance of non-silicate materials such as carbonates and nitrates. We'll be able to measure all these abundances to within a few per cent within a 100 m square," says Bibring.
Such knowledge of the composition will throw light on many of the outstanding puzzles about Mars. Our understanding of the tectonic history of the planet, for example, will deepen with more accurate knowledge of the whereabouts and composition of igneous rocks (rocks that have been molten in the interior of the planet). Accurate measurements of dust on the surface and in the atmosphere will illuminate present day wind patterns and patterns of dust transport. And climate history and present day weather patterns will be revealed in accurate measurements of the water and carbon dioxide content of the polar caps, which varies with the seasons. Some of the most interesting riddles OMEGA will help unravel, however, have to do with the history of water on the planet and the possibility that Mars was once hospitable to life.
"Two of the big questions we have about Mars are: where is the carbon dioxide? and what happened to the water? "says Bibring. "There's carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but the pressure's very low. So either Mars has lost its carbon dioxide, or it is now in the rocks in the form of carbonates. If the carbon dioxide is in the rocks, there must have been liquid water in the past."
Figure 167: VNIR optical layout (image credit: OMEGA collaboration)
Figure 168: Illustration of the OMEGA instrument (image credit: ESA)
The instrument comprises two grating spectrographs, one working in the visible and near infrared range (VNIR channel), the other in the short wavelength infrared range (SWIR channel). 96)
The OMEGA instrument is made up of two main components:
• A Camera unit (OMEGA-CAMERA or OMEC) comprising the VNIR and SWIR spectrographs and their associated signal electronics
• A Main Electronics (OMEGA-ME or OMEM) module responsible for the control and management of the instrument
Table 8: OMEGA performance summary
VNIR (Visible and Near Infrared) channel:
The VNIR channel is based on a push-broom imaging concept with a two-dimensional silicon charge coupled device (CCD) detector and a telescope covering an 8.8° total field of view that is defined by a slit placed in the focal plane of the telescope. Target radiation leaving the slit is dispersed onto the detector by a concave holographic diffraction grating. The spectrum of a pixel area on the observed target is dispersed along a column of the detector array while spatial resolution in the direction of the spectrograph slit is obtained across the lines of the array. The spectrograph slit is oriented perpendicular to the spacecraft track so the motion of the spacecraft provides the second spatial dimension of the image. During one exposure interval, the full spectrum of every spatial pixel along the slit is obtained. Successive exposures are combined as the spacecraft moves, with the exposure times selected so that a contiguous image swath at the desired resolution is obtained.
Table 9: VNIR channel characteristics
SWIR (Short Wavelength Infrared Range) channel:
The SWIR channel of the camera has two sub-channels fed by a common telescope, slit and collimator. The collimator output beam is split into two parts by a dichroic filter, covering the 0.93 - 2.77 µm and 2.65 - 5.2 µm wavelength bands. The filtered collimator outputs are dispersed by two blazed, flat diffraction gratings operating at the first order. The dispersed slit images are re-imaged onto the detectors by two sets of optics (one per sub-channel), comprising spherical collecting mirrors, spherical field mirrors and objectives composed of four zinc selenide (ZnSe) lenses. Each sub-channel employs an indium antimonide (InSb) photovoltaic linear array detector with 128 pixels, cooled down to approximately 77 K by a Stirling cycle micro cooler.
The use of linear arrays as detectors leads to the use of a whiskbroom-imaging concept. A scanning mirror gives the cross-track field of view and the spacecraft along-track motion provides the second spatial dimension for the images.
Table 10: SWIR channel characteristics
MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding)
MARSIS is a low frequency, nadir-looking pulse limited radar sounder and altimeter with ground penetration capabilities, which uses synthetic aperture techniques and a secondary receiving antenna to isolate subsurface reflections. 97) 98) 99)
The operation altitudes for MARSIS are up to 800 km above the Martian surface for subsurface sounding and up to 1200 km for ionospheric sounding. In its standard operating mode, the instrument is capable of making measurements in 1 MHz wide bands centered at 1.8, 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 MHz.
MARSIS functions by transmitting a linear frequency modulated chirp using a nadir-looking dipole antenna. The return signal is received on both the dipole antenna and a secondary monopole antenna oriented along the nadir axis. The secondary antenna has a null in the nadir direction and receives primarily the off-nadir surface reflections. This signal can be subtracted from the main received signal during ground processing to reduce surface clutter. Both received signals are down converted to range offset video signals before being passed to an analogue to digital converter. The resultant data are formatted by the MARSIS on-board digital processor and passed to the spacecraft for transmission to Earth.
MARSIS operates in the following modes:
• Subsurface Sounding
• Active Ionospheric Sounding
• Receive Only
MARSIS will perform Subsurface Sounding when the spacecraft is less than 800 km above the Martian surface. In the highly eccentric orbit selected for Mars Express, this corresponds to a period of about 26 minutes, allowing mapping of about 100 degrees of arc on the Martian surface per orbit. Over the nominal mission lifetime, extensive coverage at all latitudes will be possible. To achieve this global coverage MARSIS supports both dayside and nightside operations, although performance is maximized during the night (solar zenith angle above 80 degrees) when the ionosphere plasma frequency drops significantly and the lower frequency bands, which have greater ground penetration capabilities, can be used.
Active Ionospheric Sounding will be carried out during certain orbital passes when the orbiter is less than 1200 km above the surface, in order to gather scientific data on the Martian ionosphere.
Receive only mode will mainly be used to characterize, from an electromagnetic point of view, the environment in which MARSIS is working.
MARSIS will be operated in calibration mode periodically throughout the operational phase of the mission. The purpose of this mode is to acquire a limited amount of data in an unprocessed format. The unprocessed data is used to determine the characteristics of the adaptive matched filter computation that is used by the MARSIS processor to compress the dispersed echo signals from the planet surface and subsurface boundaries.
MARSIS is composed of three subsystems:
• The antennas
• The RF equipment (transmitter and receivers)
• The digital electronics
The receivers and digital electronics are housed together within the spacecraft. The transmitter electronics is housed in a separate box, also within the spacecraft.
The main transmit and receive antenna is a deployable dipole with two 20 meter elements, arranged so that its peak gain is in the spacecraft nadir direction. The clutter cancellation antenna is a seven meter long deployable monopole, arranged so that its gain null is in the spacecraft nadir direction. The clutter cancellation antenna is equipped with a low-noise preamplifier. Due to severe limitations on the available mass, the antennas are of a novel design, each consisting of a folding composite tube that supports a pair of wires constituting the conductive element of the antenna. The antennas are deployed by pyrotechnic release mechanisms.
The transmitter is connected to the primary antenna through an impedance matching network. The nominal operating frequency of the transmitter in the subsurface sounder modes is 1.3 to 5.5 MHz, with an instantaneous bandwidth of 1 MHz. For ionospheric sounding, the operating frequency varies between 0.1 and 5.4 MHz. The transmitter takes the chirp generated by the receiver/local oscillator electronics and amplifies it, delivering 5 W of RF power to the antenna.
The receiver electronics consists of the chirp generator/local oscillator and a dual channel receiver that down converts the received echoes. Each receiver channel has a selectable bandpass filter, a mixer, an amplifier chain, low-pass filtering and an analogue to digital converter. The output of the analogue to digital converters is passed to the digital electronics for processing prior to being sent to the ground station via the spacecraft's on-board data handling system.
The digital electronics is responsible for:
• Synthesis of the transmit chirp and local oscillator signals
• Control of the transmitter and receivers
• Processing of the digital data from the receivers
• Receipt and execution of telecommands from the spacecraft
• Transmission of formatted science, event and housekeeping data to the spacecraft.
MaRS (Mars Radio Science Experiment)
• Radio sounding of the neutral Martian atmosphere (occultation experiment) to derive vertical density, pressure and temperature profiles as a function of height, with a height resolution better than 100 meters.
• Radio sounding of the ionosphere (occultation experiment) to derive vertical ionospheric electron density profiles and to derive a description of the global behavior of the Martian ionosphere through its diurnal and seasonal variations depending also on solar wind conditions.
• Determination of dielectric and scattering properties of the Martian surface in specific target areas by a means of a bistatic radar experiment.
• Measurement of gravity anomalies in conjunction with simultaneous observations using the HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) to construct a three-dimensional topographical model for the investigation of the structure and evolution of the Martian crust and lithosphere.
• Precise determination of the mass of the moon Phobos.
• Radio sounding of the solar corona during the superior conjunction of the planet Mars with the Sun.
The spacecraft Telemetry, Tracking and Command (TT&C) radio links between the orbiter and the Earth will be used for these investigations. A simultaneous and coherent dual-frequency downlink at X-band and S-band via the High Gain Antenna (HGA) is required to separate the contributions from the classical Doppler shift and the dispersive media effects caused by the motion of the spacecraft with respect to the Earth and the propagation of the signals through the dispersive media.
The experiment relies on the observation of the phase, amplitude, polarization and propagation times of radio signals transmitted from the spacecraft and received at ground station antennas on Earth. The radio signals are affected by the medium through which the signals propagate (atmospheres, ionospheres, interplanetary medium, solar corona), by the gravitational influence of the planet on the spacecraft and finally by the performance of the various systems involved both on the spacecraft and on ground.
Radio sounding of the atmosphere and ionosphere: As the spacecraft is entering and exiting occultation by Mars as seen from the Earth, the TT&C radio beam slices through the layers of the ionosphere and neutral atmosphere. The TT&C system is operating in the two-way mode, which means that the downlink frequencies are derived from the received uplink frequency. Changes in the received radio frequency measured with an accuracy of one part in 10-13 correspond to the detection of a change in the angle of refraction of radio rays in occultation experiments of the order of 10-8 radians.
The separation of the effects of the ionosphere and the neutral atmosphere on the radio link is feasible by using a dual-frequency downlink and due to the fortunate fact that the peak height of the ionosphere and the limit of the detectable neutral atmosphere are well separated in height.
Bistatic radar investigation of planetary surface properties: The bistatic radar configuration is distinguished from the monostatic by spatial separation of the transmitter (the spacecraft) and the receiver (ground station on Earth). It is a powerful tool for providing information about surface texture (roughness and slope) on scales comparable with the sensing wavelength (of the order of centimeters to meters). Bistatic radar may also be used to determine properties of the surface material, such as dielectric constant, through differential reflection of orthogonal polarizations. The bistatic radar geometry of an orbiting spacecraft is well suited to probing the surface of planets at a variety of latitude, longitude and incidence angles.
For a typical downlink bistatic radar experiment, the radio signal is transmitted from the spacecraft High Gain Antenna toward the planetary surface and is scattered from that surface. That part of the signal power that is reflected toward Earth is received at the ground station. Optimizing performance of the bistatic radar experiments requires accurate prediction of the orbiter trajectory for the formulation of antenna pointing strategies and prediction of signal parameters such as Doppler shift and signal amplitude. In a quasi-specular experiment the antenna is then programmed to follow a locus of points for which surface reflection would be specular if Mars were smooth. From the data recorded along these specular point paths, surface roughness can be inferred from Doppler dispersion of the echo signal; the dielectric constant of the surface material can be inferred from the echo amplitude and/or polarization properties.
In a bistatic backscatter experiment, the spacecraft antenna is aimed exactly opposite to the Earth direction, a configuration which is often much easier to implement than dynamically tracking either moving or fixed points. As the antenna beam illuminates regions on the surface, coherent backscatter enhancements will cause ice-covered areas to appear extremely bright. Repeated tracks over the polar region can be used to define the boundaries of icy polar deposits or to monitor their changes as a function of time. The spatial resolution of the measurements is approximately equal to the projection of the HGA beam on the surface. The radio echo signal is received in the open-loop mode in two orthogonal polarizations (for example, Left Circular Polarization, and Right Circular Polarization), down-converted, sampled, and stored for further processing at investigating institutions.
Determination of the mass of Phobos: The objective of this experiment is the precise determination of the mass of the Martian moon Phobos and, if feasible, also of the low degree spherical harmonics of its gravity field. The shape and volume of Phobos will be determined using observations made by the cameras carried on Mars Express, allowing the bulk density of the moon may be derived.
The method of mass determination during close encounters with small bodies is well established. The gravitational attraction of Phobos will slightly disturb the trajectory of Mars Express. The difference between predicted trajectory (without Phobos) and the actually observed trajectory will lead to the determination of the attractive forces acting on the spacecraft and from them the mass of the moon. To make these measurements, the spacecraft is operating in two-way link mode with an X-band uplink.
The observations will be performed each time the spacecraft encounters Phobos with a closest approach distance of less than 500 km.
Investigation of gravity anomalies: Gravity information can be obtained at all times when the spacecraft is using the two-way dual-frequency radio link and the spacecraft is close enough to the surface that gravity accelerations significantly affects the spacecraft velocity. Earth pointing of the HGA is required to maintain a continuous radio link. The coherent and simultaneous dual-frequency downlink allows the extraction of the dispersive effects on the downlink due to the interplanetary medium and the Earth's ionosphere. Doppler tracking data will be acquired at a rate of one sample per 10 seconds and ranging data will be collected at a rate of one point per 10 minutes.
Velocity contributions induced by attitude control movements of the spacecraft which result in a HGA motion relative to the line-of-sight to Earth may reach several mm s-1. Therefore, thruster activities and attitude control commands have to be recorded in order to reconstruct the attitude motion for later correction of derived LOS gravity accelerations.
The anticipated accuracy of an S/X-band two-way radio link is of the order of 10-5 ms-1. This translates into an accuracy of gravitational acceleration determination of the order of several mGal (one mGal = 10-5 ms-2 ~ 10-6 g), depending on the height and extent of the local topographic features.
Solar corona sounding: Solar corona sounding will be performed using a two-way radio link. A dual-frequency downlink at S-band and X-band will be used to separate the coronal dispersive effects from the classical Doppler shifts. The two-way link is a powerful tool for the derivation of electron density models from observed electron content when propagation time delay data (ranging) and dispersive Doppler shifts are compared. The two-way link can also be used as the basis for the derivation of solar wind speed by correlating uplink and downlink signals and a detector for rapidly outward propagating density enhancements originating from solar events.
Superior solar conjunctions of Mars will occur in mid-October 2004 and mid-October 2006 over the North Pole of the Sun in the plane of sky at an apparent distance from the solar disk of less than three solar radii. The dispersive effects of the solar corona on the radio link will dominate the classical and dispersive contributions from the Martian gravity field and atmosphere.
Solar coronal sounding will be performed when Mars Express is within ten degrees elongation on either side of the solar disk (40 solar radii), which will occur from mid-September to mid-November 2004 and 2006.
The Mars Express Orbiter Radio Science (MaRS) experiment makes use of the radio link between the orbiter and the ground station(s) on Earth. Frequency, amplitude and polarization information will be extracted from the radio signal received in the ground station.
The S-band uplink is received via the Low Gain Antennas (LGA) or the High gain Antenna (HGA). In coherent, two-way mode the received frequency is used to derive the downlink frequencies using the transponder frequency ratios 880/221 and 240/221 for the X-band and S-band downlinks, respectively.
The X-band uplink is received via the HGA only. In the coherent two-way mode, the received frequency is used to derive the downlink frequencies using the transponder frequency ratios 880/749 and 240/749 for X-band and S-band downlinks, respectively. An X-band uplink will enhance the performance of the experiment because X-band is less sensitive to the effect of interplanetary plasma along the propagation path.
The simultaneous and phase coherent dual-frequency downlink at X-band and S-band is transmitted via the HGA. The X-band and S-band frequencies are related by a factor of 11/3. If an uplink exists, the downlinks are also coherent with the uplink in their respective transponding ratios. The dual-frequency downlink is required in order to separate the classical Doppler shift, due to the relative motion of the spacecraft and the ground station, from the dispersive media effects, due to the propagation of the radio waves through the ionosphere and interplanetary medium. It is also required that both frequencies are transmitted via the High Gain Antenna to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio.
The ground stations will include the tracking complexes near Perth, Australia (ESA, 35 m antenna), and the Deep Space Network in California, Spain and Australia (NASA, 34 m antenna). A tracking pass consists of typically eight to ten hours of visibility. Measurements of the spacecraft range and carrier Doppler shift can be obtained whenever the spacecraft is visible. In the two-way mode the ground station transmits an uplink radio signal at S-band or X-band and receives the dual-frequency simultaneous downlink at X-band and S-band. The information about signal amplitude, received frequency and polarization is extracted and stored, together with the time of receipt.
The ground stations will employ a hydrogen maser frequency standard to achieve frequency stability of the order of one part in 10-15 over a long integration time (> 100 seconds). This stability is required for precise two-way tracking in order to achieve velocity measurement accuracies better than 10-4 ms-1 with a one second integration time.
SPICAM (SPectroscopy for the Investigation of the Characteristics of the Atmosphere of Mars)
Table 11: SPICAM channels
Operational Modes: The operational modes of SPICAM are Test mode (ground use only), Star mode, Sun mode, Limb mode and Nadir mode. The operational modes are derived from the scientific objectives and the related spacecraft attitudes.
Table 12: SPICAM operating modes
In Nadir mode, the instrument will point directly at the planet and will analyse solar radiation that has travelled through the atmosphere after being reflected from the planet surface. Nadir observations allow the measurement of total column abundance of atmospheric components. In star or Sun mode, the instrument will point tangentially through the atmosphere towards a star, or the Sun, which is observed through the atmosphere as it rises or sets. The instrument then analyses the light once components of it have been absorbed by the atmosphere, allowing derivation of vertical concentration profiles for atmospheric components. In limb pointing mode, the instrument will point across the atmosphere, as during Star mode, but without a target star, and the instrument will analyse the vertical profile of aeronomic emissions.
Ultraviolet Channel: The SPICAM ultraviolet channel (SUV) is based around a holographic diffraction grating.
Table 13: Ultraviolet channel characteristics
The first optical element in the UV channel is an off-axis parabolic mirror, which collects the incident light entering through either the nadir or solar aperture and focuses it.
Table 14: Ultraviolet channel mirror characteristics
In the focal plane of the mirror, there is a slit, which can be moved in and out of the field of view by a mechanical actuator, providing two configurations:
• Slit absent, for observation of stellar occultations with a field of view of 1° x 3.16°
• Slit present, for the observation of extended sources.
The slit has two parts, with two different widths, to give different flux resolutions.
The focal plane is the entrance of the spectrometer, a holographic concave grating, which collects the incoming light and directs it to the detector block.
Table 15: Ultraviolet channel grating characteristics
The detection block consists of a CCD detector equipped with an image intensifier tube. The spectrum of a single source point in the focal plane is dispersed along the lines of the CCD. The usable spectral band is 118 to 320 nm, chosen so as to offer good resolution (~1 nm) for stellar observations and to cover the CO2 and O3 bands. The lower wavelength was selected to be just below the Lyman α wavelength and the upper wavelength was chosen to reject visible light. The quantum efficiency of the photocathode is zero beyond 320 nm and the detector is therefore solar blind. The detector has a large dynamic range - by varying the gain of the image intensifier, the spectrometer can perform individual photon counting and deal with very high input intensities.
To observe the Sun, a five-millimeter diameter mirror is positioned so as to reflect the light from the Sun via a dedicated entrance aperture onto the parabolic mirror.
Infrared Channel: The SPICAV infrared channel (SIR) is based around a scanning acousto-optical tuneable filter (AOTF)
Table 16: Infrared channel characteristics
The entrance optical system comprises a lens telescope with a diameter of 30 mm and a collimator lens, which collect the incoming radiation and direct it onto the AOTF.
The AOTF consists of a tellurium oxide (TeO2) crystal to which an acoustic wave is applied. The acoustic wave propagating in the crystal causes it to act in a similar way to a diffraction grating. A radio-frequency synthesizer drives a piezo-electric crystal attached to the TeO2 crystal to produce the wave. The frequency of excitation determines the wavelength of the acoustic waves and hence the select wavelength of the AOTF. The frequency range of the synthesizer corresponds to an AOTF passband of 1.1 - 1.7 µm.
The two output beams from the AOTF are collimated by another lens and detected by two indium gallium arsenide PIN photodiodes.
Figure 169: Flight Model Sensor Unit of SPICAM viewed from above. The IR AOTF spectrometer is at top; the UV spectrometer is at bottom. The common optical axis points to the left. For the UV spectrometer, the light enters the mechanical baffle (black), is focused by a parabolic mirror (bottom right) through a slit, then dispersed by the grating (middle left), to be refocused on the intensified CCD Detector (at center), image credit: SPICAM collaboration)
SPICAM is a low mass (4.7 kg) UV-IR spectrometer on the Mars Express orbiter, is dedicated to recovering most of the atmospheric science that was lost with Mars-96 and its set of SPICAM sensors. The new configuration of SPICAM includes a 2-channel optical sensor (3.8 kg) and an electronics block (0.9 kg).
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).