December 31, 2004

Top Space Stories of 2004: Mars Express

Counting down the top ten astrobiology stories for 2004 highlights the accomplishments of those exploring Mars, Saturn, comets, and planets beyond Pluto. Number eight in this countdown was the Mars Express mission, the most complete study of martian topography and water from below the surface to the upper atmosphere.

Astrobiology Magazine -- Number eight on the countdown of 2004 highlights was the assembly of the Mars satellite constellation. With two surface rovers active, even more satellites circumnavigated overhead.

For the first time in planetary exploration, data relays of unprecedented volume and frequency could be assembled, stored and transmitted back to Earth. Two of these satellites have orbited for years, the Mars Global Surveyor and Odyssey.

The European mission, Mars Express, joined with the constellation to study the atmosphere and provide high-resolution images of the surface features and topography.

Mars Express is performing the most detailed and complete exploration of Mars ever done. From the start of January to the middle of February, Mars Express produced a total of 18 strips of pictures in 100 orbits of Mars. In general, one orbit produces an image with a length of over 250,000 lines.

When searching for water, for instance, Mars Express is conducting the most thorough search so far: from several kilometers below the ground, and up into the atmosphere.

Before entering martian orbit, the cruise took just over six months. Mars Express travelled at an average speed of about 10 kilometers per second (around 2100 miles per hour) and covered a distance of about 400 million kilometers (240 million miles).

From orbit, Mars Express is scanning the surface and atmosphere of the planet with seven instruments. In particular it will:

  • search for signs of water down to a few kilometres underground;
  • map the Martian surface more accurately than ever before (in colour and stereo);
  • determine the detailed composition of the surface;
  • determine the composition and circulation of the atmosphere;
  • study the interaction of the solar wind with the planet.

Mars Express's orbiter will operate for a whole Martian year (687 Earth days). It is expected that the mission will be extended by another Martian year.

After the mission, the Mars Express orbiter will simply keep orbiting the planet for at least 50 years. Then it will probably burn up in Mars's atmosphere.

This will also ensure that debris will not pollute the planet's surface. Many of Mars Express elements will be used for Venus Express, and probably other missions in the future.

What Next?

- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launch, Mars Orbiter to collect high-resolution, 1-meter, images in stereo-view of Mars
- European Venus Express, Venus Orbiter for two-year nominal mapping life [486 days, two Venus year]

- New Horizons, Pluto and moon Charon flyby, mapping to outer solar system cometary fields and Kuiper Belt
- Dawn, Asteroid Ceres and Vesta rendezvous and orbiter, including investigations of asteroid water and influence on meteors
- Kepler, Extrasolar Terrestrial Planet Detection Mission, designed to look for transiting or earth-size planets that eclipse their parent stars [survey 100,000 stars]
- Europa Orbiter, planned Orbiter of Jupiters ice-covered moon, Europa, uses a radar sounder to bounce radio waves through the ice
- Japanese SELENE Lunar Orbiter and Lander, to probe the origin and evolution of the moon

- Japanese Planet-C Venus Orbiter, to study the Venusian atmosphere, lightning, and volcanoes.
- Mars Scout mission, final selections August 2003 from four Scouts: SCIM, ARES, MARVEL and Phoenix
- French Mars Remote Sensing Orbiter and four small Netlanders, linked by Italian communications orbiter

- BepiColumbo, European Mercury Orbiters and Lander, including Japanese collaborators, lander to operate for one week on surface
- Mars 2009, proposed long-range rover to demonstrate hazard avoidance and accurate landing dynamics


On the Net:


European Space Agency

Mars Express Mission