Tag Archives: Mars Express

20 Years at Mars!

One more post today, because this is an important one. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†Yesterday was Independence Day here in America, and for space geeks, it was important for another reason — it was the twentieth anniversary of the Pathfinder landing on Mars, and marked twenty years of continuous exploration of the Red Planet.

It’s amazing to think about. ¬†I remember exactly where I was on July 4, 1997. ¬†I was at an Independence Day party at my uncle’s house, and he had a TV on for the nerdier among us to watch and see when Pathfinder landed. ¬†It was very exciting. ¬†Pathfinder was the first lander to operate on Mars since November of 1982, when Viking 1 lost contact with Earth, a very long gap.

Mars had developed a powerful reputation as the Bermuda Triangle of the Solar System.  Before Viking, there had been 21 attempted missions to Mars, but only six had been successful.  After Viking, there were no further attempts until 1988, when the Soviet Union sent the ill-fated Phobos missions, both of which failed.  In 1992, NASA made another attempt with Mars Observer, which is believed to have exploded just before orbital insertion due to a fault in its propulsion system.  It seemed like Mars was off limits.  The next Mars transfer window came and went.

In 1996, another Mars window opened, and this time both NASA and the Russian Federation’s Rosaviacosmos were prepared to send spacecraft. ¬†It would be one of the last ambitious deep space efforts by Roscosmos for some time. ¬†Rosaviacosmos sent Mars 96, a highly ambitious spacecraft built collaboratively with European nations and carrying an orbiter, landers, and ground penetrators. ¬†It failed to leave Earth orbit, and eventually reentered Earth’s atmosphere. ¬†(The same fate would later befall Fobos-Grunt.) ¬† ¬†NASA sent Mars Pathfinder, its hitchhiking Sojourner rover, and Mars Global Surveyor.

On July 4, 1997, Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars with an innovative tetrahedral lander studded with airbags, which allowed it to hit the surface in any configuration and still end up upright at the end.  Although Pathfinder had a brief scare due to an undetected race condition in its computer software, it was recovered and went on to a very full mission, deploying the breadbox-sized Sojourner rover to become the first wheels on Mars.  Pathfinder continued operating until October 7, 1997, beating its design specs by about two and a half months.

But before it failed, another spacecraft arrived: Mars Global Surveyor, the first fully successful Mars orbiter since the Viking Orbiters in the 1970s.  Mars Global Surveyor set a record (since beaten) for total operating time at Mars, lasting nearly a decade (well past its one-year primary mission), going on to conduct joint observations with later spacecraft and serving as the first Mars communications relay station, transmitting data from landers back to Earth.

After Pathfinder and MGS arrived, many more followed, although Mars continued to earn its reputation as the Eater of Space Probes. ¬†The 1998 launch window was fraught with failures, from the Japanese Nozomi probe (ran out of propellant prematurely due to a fault), to NASA’s Mars Climate Observer (killed by an unknown unit conversion error resulting in deorbit rather than orbit capture), to Mars Polar Lander (lost due to premature shutdown of the landing engine) and its piggybacked Deep Space 2 penetrator (MPL crashed before it could be deployed). ¬†But the 2001 window showed a reversal of fortunes. ¬†MGS, the lone operational spacecraft at Mars, would be joined by NASA’s Mars Odyssey 2001, which remains in operation today. ¬†In 2003, MGS and Odyssey would be joined by ESA’s Mars Express, which continues to operate today, although Mars Express’s piggybacked Beagle 2 lander (provided by the United Kingdom) never called home. ¬†Orbital photography eventually revealed that it had landed in a very unfortunate posture among a boulder field, and was likely unable to open itself properly — this is a risk for any robotic lander, and one that is nearly impossible to prevent. ¬† ¬†But also in 2003 launched two of the most phenomenal overachievers in the history of Mars exploration: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. ¬†Both operated far past their original three-month mission. ¬†Spirit was eventually killed when it became mired in a posture which did not give its solar powers enough light during the long Martian winter, but Opportunity remains in operation today, having set both endurance and mileage records.

The 2005 launch window saw the most powerful camera ever sent to Mars, aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. ¬†This spacecraft has enabled exquisitely detailed imagery over time, tracking changes in the surface features of the Red Planet beyond the capabilities of its predecessors, and even photographing many of the landers and rovers. MRO remains in operation today. ¬†In 2007, Mars Phoenix Lander was sent, partially reflying some of the experiments planned for Mars Polar Lander, as well as following new plans, adhering to the overall NASA strategy of “follow the water”. ¬†Phoenix operated for 157 sols (Martian days), nearly double the planned mission duration, when the polar darkness of winter arrived and claimed it. ¬†Among its many discoveries was the first observation of liquid water on the surface of Mars, likely water melted from the icepack by its landing rockets and then briefly recondensed on the spacecraft’s landing legs before boiling away in the low atmospheric pressure.

The 2011 window saw both tragedy and triumph — first, the loss of Roscosmos’ Fobos-Grunt and its piggybacked Yinghu0-1 lander from China, and then the brilliant success of Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”. ¬†Curiosity is by far the largest rover ever sent to another world, so large that the tetrahedral airbag lander of Mars Pathfinder and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers would not suffice. ¬†Instead, a “Skycrane” vehicle was devised to bring it in like a helicopter. ¬†The system worked perfectly, and Curiosity remains in operation today, although the perils of exploring the unknown have been driven home by the shocking amount of damage in its aluminum wheels; the rocks of Gale Crater seem to be much harder and sharper than those encountered anywhere else that landers have visited.

In 2013, NASA’s MAVEN was launched; it is still operating in Mars orbit today. ¬†And another nation joined the elite club of deep space explorers, as India’s ISRO placed the Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) spacecraft into Mars orbit. ¬†It, too, remains in operation today. ¬†2016, the latest Mars window, saw the launch of ExoMars, a collaboration between ESA and Russia, and its piggybacked Schiaparelli lander. ¬†ExoMars remains in operation today, while Schiaparelli unfortunately was lost on landing.

So, that makes 20 continuous years of spacecraft operating on Mars or in orbit around it, and today there are six functioning orbiters and two functioning rovers on the surface.  It makes a wonderful change from the long drought of Mars exploration before that!  It is quite likely that there will never again be a gap in Mars exploration, not now that there are so many different space agencies at work on it.

The next window opens in May. ¬†NASA plans to launch its InSight spacecraft (delayed from the 2016 window).¬†In 2020, things get really busy. NASA has another mission in the planning stages, and Europe and Russia will be collaborating on the second ExoMars spacecraft. ¬†China and Japan both are planning to make their second attempts for Mars, and the United Arab Emirates is planning their first deep space mission, and India might manage their second Mangalyaan in that window (if not, they’ll likely make the following window). ¬†And perhaps most intriguingly of all, in 2020 SpaceX is planning their Red Dragon mission, the first crewed mission to Mars (unless someone manages to beat them to it). ¬†We’ll have to wait and see if they can actually make that date; it seems a tad ambitious to me! ¬†But wouldn’t it be exciting?



Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Epic Planetary Approach Videos

The European Space Agency recently released¬†this video from Mars Express’ low-resolution Visual Monitoring Camera, covering 10 orbits of the red planet. ¬†It’s quite beautiful.

But it got me thinking — surely there are videos of other planetary approaches, right? ¬†But of course! ¬†I’m quite fond of this video made out of selected Cassini images from an eight-year period, and set to the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata:

Go back a bit further, and here’s Cassini’s encounter with Jupiter:

Both animations are in black and white, because the images returned by Cassini are all black and white; to get color, the same image is shot three times through different filters, and then a technician has to manually colorize and assemble them.

This next video is in color, but over a shorter period of time so you don’t get that sense of approach. ¬†It’s of Jupiter, created from images taken by Voyager 1. ¬†Each¬†frame corresponds to one revolution of the giant planet (or 10 hours) so you’d never see it like this really; the time-lapse has frozen the planet’s rotation so we can clearly see the motion of the clouds. ¬†But it’s cool:

To get more of an idea of its rotation, here’s New Horizons’ take on it:

This one’s shorter, but the amount of motion visible is amazing. ¬†It’s Io from New Horzions:

And now I’ll finish with another Cassini timelapse at Saturn, because Saturn is the most visually dramatic¬†planet for this sort of thing. ¬†This one shows the approach and orbital capture, and it’s basically the same concept as the one above, except they’ve done the postprocessing to convert the images to color, and further cleaned them up to get the best quality possible:

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Beagle 2: Found!

This was widely rumored since Wednesday and announced publicly yesterday, and it’s awesome: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has located the lost Beagle 2 lander, Britain’s first and so far only attempt at landing on another world. ¬†And although the pictures can’t tell us exactly what happened, they do rule out some possibilities, and confirm¬†that whatever went wrong, the landing was actually successful.

In December of 2003, the Beagle 2 probe separated from Mars Express. ¬†The last signal heard confirmed safe separation, but nothing further was ever heard from it. ¬†That’s something every planetary lander team has on their mind, because an enormous number of things can destroy a mission at this critical stage. ¬†Did it land in the shadow of a boulder, big enough to shade the solar panels but yet too small for existing Mars orbiters to spot? ¬†(MRO would not arrive for several more years.) ¬†Did it land in a gully too narrow to allow the petals to open? ¬†Was it operating find, but unable to communicate? ¬†Or did one of the many different things that must all happen precisely on time in order to deliver it safely fail? ¬†Did the parachute fail to deploy? ¬†Did it deploy but become fouled? ¬†Was the heatshield to thin, or did it contain an undetected defect that let too much heat in? ¬†Did the backshell not separate? ¬†Did the airbags fail to deploy, leaving the probe to shatter on the surface of Mars?

The pictures rule out a lot of those possibilities, because they show it on the surface of Mars with at least two of its petals open. ¬†(This is near the limits of MRO’s abilities, so it’s hard to be sure if any other¬†petals failed to open.) ¬†And they believe they have also found the backshell and parachute. ¬†So whatever went wrong, it went wrong after landing — the landing system performed correctly.

MRO-Mars-Reconnaissance-Orbiter-Beagle-2-Lander-white-pia19106-br2It’s lovely to see the lost probe rediscovered like this! ¬†And if your’e wondering how they decided that these little specks of light were meaningful, well, JPL prepared a video to explain:



Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Comet Siding Springs approaches Mars

Astronomers around the world are getting to watch an amazing event tomorrow — a very close flyby of Mars by Comet Siding Spring. ¬†Normally, this would be just a curiosity (since astronomers have ruled out the possibility of a collision) but this is a very fortuitous time for the encounter — two ground vehicles (Opportunity and Curiosity) and five orbiters (Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and Mangalyaan/Mars Orbiter Mission) are all ready to observe. ¬†MAVEN is particularly fortuitous; it’s specialized for atmospheric observations, which¬†makes it unusually well-equipped for this chance encounter with a comet’s tail.

Because yes, Mars is expected to pass through the comet’s tail. ¬†It’s pretty awesome, and the view from Curiosity in particular should be spectacular. ¬†(Curiosity is better equipped for night viewing, since it is nuclear powered and doesn’t need to conserve its batteries overnight.) ¬†NASA’s GSFC has released this video highlighting the experience:

It won’t just be the seven vehicles at Mars observing the comet. ¬†Other instruments, including the Hubble Space Telescope and STEREO-A, will also be watching, as will ground-based observers here on Earth. ¬†Amateurs with larger telescopes (8″ or better) and favorable weather will be able to follow the comet as it approaches and passes the red planet.

I can’t wait to see the pictures. ¬†ūüėČ

And if that weren’t exciting enough, the Orionids are starting up. ¬†That’s debris from Comet Halley, and it will peak in a few days. ¬†And on Thursday, many of us in North America (not all, alas) will be treated to a very nice partial solar eclipse. ¬†It’s a good week!

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Phobos Approaching!

Tomorrow, Mars Express is set to make the closest flyby ever of the innermost moon of Mars, the doomed Phobos. ¬†Tiny, resembling a potato, and possibly either a captured asteroid or shrapnel from a massive impact on the Martian surface, Phobos is sinking about a centimeter per year, and already is so low that on the Martian surface you may see it rise twice in one day. ¬†Little is known of the tiny world, but tomorrow’s flyby will provide the best measurements yet of its mass, as Mars Express passes a mere 45 km from the surface. ¬†This is much too close for Mars Express to photograph the world, as it will be traveling so rapidly relative to the spacecraft that it would be just a blur, but scientists monitoring the signal from the spacecraft will be able to measure tiny shifts as the gravity of Phobos deflects the spacecraft ever so slightly, providing the opportunity for the most accurate estimate of its mass yet and even allowing them to probe the interior mass distribution.

The European Space Agency released this video, computer generated from radar models of Phobos and overlain with actual imagery, to mark the occasion:

ESA: Mars Express heading for daring flyby of Phobos

Bad Astronomy: A Fearful Rendezvous for Mars Express

SPACE.com: Mars Express to Fly Within ‘Touching Distance’ of Moon Phobos

Leave a comment

Filed under Space