Mars Express Helps Develop New Maps Of Red Planet
June 3, 2013

Mars Express Helps Develop New Maps Of Red Planet

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting around the Red Planet has helped develop new global maps.

ESA released the new Mars Express global maps on the 10th anniversary of the launch of the spacecraft. The maps trace the history of water and volcanic activity on the Red Planet, and also help identify sites of special interest for next generation Mars explorers.

The maps were built from ten years of data collected by Mars Express' OMEGA mineralogical mapper. This instrument determines the mineral composition of the Martian surface by analyzing the spectrum of reflected sunlight.

“The history of Mars is encoded in its minerals,” says Alvaro Giménez, ESA´s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. “These new global views, made possible thanks to the longevity of ESA´s Mars Express mission, are helping us to unlock the secrets of 4.6 billion years of planetary evolution."

He said the maps will help determine future landing sites for the next generation of Mars landers and rovers, as well as help find spots for future manned missions.

The sites of hydrated minerals are primarily seen in the most ancient cratered terrain that dates back to over four billion years ago. This information suggests that Mars sustained surface and subsurface liquid water during its first few hundred million years.

Some of the Mars Express maps show the story of volcanism on Mars, based on differences in the chemical composition of the solidified lavas yielding clues as to the evolution of the temperature and pressure inside the planet. These lava-flooding events took place on the Red Planet about 3.7 billion years ago.

“Collectively, these mineral maps provide unique records of the planet´s evolution through time. They exhibit the role water and volcanic processes played over the entire planet, spanning geological aeons,” says Jean-Pierre Bibring, Principal Investigator for OMEGA.

ESA said the maps highlight areas of particular scientific interest that may warrant further in-situ exploration, like the abundance of hydrated mineral exposures clustered along the boundary between the low northern plains and the ancient cratered highlands.

“Against the flanks of these cliffs, thick ice deposits may have preserved ancient water-altered sites for a longer period of time than in more exposed locations,” says Professor Bibring.

Mars Express has imaged over 95 percent of the Red Planet's surface using its high-resolution camera, and about two-thirds of it has been mapped at a resolution of 20 m per pixel or better. The spacecraft has also provided the most detailed atlas of Mars' innermost moon Phobos.

“The decade-long observations by Mars Express of all aspects of the Martian environment are providing us with a truly global perspective on the history of the Red Planet, paving the way for the next generation of Mars exploration missions,” says Olivier Witasse, ESA´s Mars Express Project Scientist. “But we still have a lot to look forward to and are planning a number of unique observations with Mars Express, such as coordinating measurements of the atmosphere with NASA´s MAVEN spacecraft, watching the very close pass of Comet C/2013 Siding Spring by Mars in October 2014, and monitoring the arrival of ESA´s ExoMars Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator module in October 2016.”

Mars Express also played an important role in NASA's landing of Curiosity, its latest rover. The European spacecraft was able to assist NASA in monitoring the delivery of Curiosity to Mars last August during its "seven minutes of terror" descent. Scientists used data from Mars Express' High Resolution Stereo camera to hone in on the landing target. They also used its Lander Communication system to relay data back to Earth.