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article imageRemarkable footage of Red Planet marks 10 years of Mars Express

By Robert Myles     Oct 29, 2013 in Science
Cologne - As the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter approaches the tenth anniversary of arrival in orbit at the Red Planet, the ESA has assembled a fascinating topographical ‘fly-by’ of Mars.
The video footage put together from Mars Express images shows the Martian landscape to such a degree, it almost seems tangible.
Mars Express was launched atop a Russian-built Soyuz launch vehicle from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia on June 2, 2003. Termed “Express” because of the shortness of its journey time from Earth to Mars, Mars Express’ launch was timed to coincide with the orbits of Earth and Mars bringing the two planets closer than they had been for about 60,000 years.
Six-and-a-half-months later, on Dec. 20, 2003, Mars Express performed the first of a short series of manoeuvres which put it into an elliptical orbit above the Red Planet. After 100 days in orbit, ESA mission controllers adjusted the craft’s orbit so Mars Express circled Mars once every 6.7 hours at a maximum altitude of 10,107 kilometers (6,280 miles), its closest approach, or periapsis, of the elliptical orbit being just 298 kilometers (185 miles).
Since then, Mars Express has orbited its target planet nearly 12,500 times sending back vast amounts of data collected by its scientific instruments. It’s also photographed Mars’ highest volcanoes, deepest canyons, ancient river beds and lava flows with a degree of sharpness and clarity that has to be seen to be believed.
But it was not always so. After Mars Express made its initial orbital adjustments around the Red Planet, the first image of Mars returned by the spacecraft’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) caused a heart-stopping moment for mission controllers.
Instead of the clear, crisp detail we can now see, Mars Express’ first image was a pallid, washed-out view of a planet that was anything but red. Recalls Ralf Jaumann, project manager for the mission at the German Aerospace Center, “Everyone just swallowed.”
It turned out that the HRSC, in close proximity to Mars, was much more sensitive than scientists had imagined. The problem was nothing more than one familiar to Earth-bound photographers: overexposure. Two orbits later the problem was fixed enabling the HRSC to start sending back views of Mars like none before.
To date, Mars Express has mapped in, high resolution, 97 million square kilometres (37.5 million square miles) of Mars total surface area of 145 million km² (56 million miles²). In the photographs, a single pixel corresponds to less than 20 meters (about 65 feet) of the Martian surface.
Stereoscopic photographs of Mars in such detail has, said Jaumann, “enabled the creation of the most comprehensive data set that has ever been acquired by a German instrument designed to study our Solar System."
As part of Mars Express tenth anniversary celebrations, the DLR German Aerospace Center has now ‘stitched together’ a number of Mars Express images to create an almost global digital topographic model of the Martian surface, providing a unique visualisation. The video forms part of techniques to enable researchers to acquire a better understanding of the evolution of the Red Planet.
The success of the Mars Express mission has exceeded all expectations. "The Mars Express mission was due to end after one Mars year – or about two Earth years," recalls Jaumann.
But over the past 10 years, the ESA has kept extending Mars Express ‘movie franchise’ with the result that the mission is presently scheduled to continue until end 2014. Said Jaumann, "That is actually the bottom line on the past 10 years; everything is still functioning perfectly and we are still acquiring new data that is important for Mars research."
In the accompanying video, the images were taken by Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera and the music was created by Stephan Elgner of DLR’s Mars Express planetary cartography team.
More about Mars, exploration of mars, Mars express, Esa, European space agency
 
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