February 10, 2009

ESA extends three space missions

The European Space Agency says it is extending the operations of its Mars Express, Venus Express and Cluster missions until at least Dec. 31.

The ESA said the Mars Express spacecraft, launched in 2003, has produced breathtaking, high-resolution images of the planet's surface in 3-D and in color. The spacecraft, carrying the first radar instrument flown to Mars, was also the first spacecraft to detect methane in the planet's atmosphere from orbit.

The Mars Express mission has been extended three times.

Venus Express, its mission extended twice, reached Venus in 2006, initiating the most comprehensive investigation of that planet to date, detecting water molecules escaping into space, providing concrete evidence for lightning in the venusian atmosphere and producing infrared glimpses of the surface.

The ESA Cluster constellation satellites started operating in 2001, performing the first stereo investigation of Earth's magnetosphere. The space agency said Cluster has provided the first 3-D observation of magnetic reconnection in space -- a phenomenon that reconfigures the magnetic field and releases high amounts of energy. Cluster also pioneered measurements of electric currents in space and discovered that plasma -- a gas of charged particles surrounding Earth -- makes waves.

The ESA said the Cluster mission has been previously extended twice and the new extension will make it possible to study the auroral regions above Earth's poles and widen the investigations of the magnetosphere.