Seeing Red: Getting the Front Seats

Approach of Beagle

The European Mars probe, Mars Express and its lander, Beagle 2, is closing in on the red planet, as it gets nearer to a Christmas landing. The close approach picture was taken on 1 December 2003 from ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) under the responsibility of the Principal Investigator Prof. Gerhard Neukum.

Beagle’s close approach, 1 December 2003
Image Credit: copyright ESA

It was processed by the DLR Institute for Planetary Research, also involved in the development of the camera, and by the Freie Universität Berlin.

This picture shows planet Mars as seen from a distance of about 5.5 million kilometres. This is a very unusual view of Mars because the planet is illuminated in a way never seen from Earth. The sun shines on part of the western hemisphere, but more than a third of the Martian disc lies in the dark. The dark features at the top are part of the northern lowlands of Mars, where oceans possibly existed thousands of millions of years ago.

ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers will examine the red planet in quite different and complementary ways. "Together, these missions can provide a range of new information about Mars that neither could provide alone," said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Exploration Rovers and for NASA’s participation in Mars Express at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "Historically, there have been only three successful landings on Mars. In the span of only one month, we may double that number, and our knowledge of Mars may increase even more," he said.

Mars Express is expected to release part of its payload, the Beagle 2 lander, on Dec. 19. On Christmas Eve (in U.S. time zones), Beagle 2 will parachute to the Martian surface, and Mars Express will enter orbit around the planet. Beagle 2 will use analytical tests and a robotic arm to search for evidence of past or present life at its landing site. The orbiter will use seven instruments to study Mars’ atmosphere, structure and geology. The science teams for Beagle 2, and for every instrument on Mars Express, include U.S. researchers. Two instruments on Mars Express have components from U.S. partners in the mission.

The Beagle 2 team plans to use NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to relay communications to Earth on the lander’s arrival day and in subsequent weeks.

The U.S. role in Mars Express includes navigational support and software developed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. and communications support from the JPL-managed Deep Space Network, which operates antenna stations in California, Spain and Australia. One of the Mars Express instruments, with U.S. components, will use radar to seek evidence of underground water, either frozen or liquid.

"This will be the first attempt to study layers far below Mars’ surface," said JPL’s Dr. William Johnson, manager for the instrument, which was built under the leadership of Dr. Giovanni Picardi, University of Rome, La Sapienza. The instrument, the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding, is designed to discern boundaries between layers as deep as 5 kilometers (3 miles) under the surface. It will also examine the structure and variability of the Martian ionosphere, the top layer of the atmosphere. The University of Iowa, Iowa City, built the transmitter for the radar instrument. JPL built the receiver. Astro Aerospace, Carpinteria, Calif., built the 40-meter (131-foot) antenna. Italy provided the instrument’s digital processing system and software and integrated the parts.

The other Mars Express instrument with key NASA-funded components is the Analyzer of Space Plasma and Energetic Atoms. It will examine interactions between the Martian atmosphere and the solar wind of charged particles speeding away from the sun. Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas, built two sensors for it, an electron spectrometer and an ion mass analyzer.

Other images released by the orbiting instruments around Mars.

Disappearing Act (Released 2 December 2003)

Mars 2001 Odyssey
Disappearing Act (Released 2 December 2003)
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona State University

Just across Ares Vallis from Aram Chaos lies a heavily eroded crater filled by material that is on its way out. This two-frame mosaic of THEMIS VIS images shows the floor of a crater that was filled by material of unknown origin. That material is now being eroded in a manner that is quite enigmatic. Note that the irregular depressions have varying depths across the scene. It appears that the crater fill material begins to erode through the formation of depressions that then deepen over time. Why the depressions form in the first place is a mystery.

Left: Latitude 2.4 Longitude 343.6E (16.4W) Image Size (km) 61.3×26.8 Mars 2001 Odyssey, Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), Mars Orbital Laser Altimeter (MOLA) Team

Exhuming Crater in Northeast Arabia MGS MOC Release No. MOC2-563, 3 December 2003

Mars Global Surveyor
Exhuming Crater in Northeast Arabia MGS MOC Release No. MOC2-563, 3 December 2003
Image Credit: Mars Global Surveyor, Malin Space Systems

The upper crust of Mars is layered, and interbedded with these layers are old, filled and buried meteor impact craters. In a few places on Mars, such as Arabia Terra, erosion has re-exposed some of the filled and buried craters. This October 2003 Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) image shows an example. The larger circular feature was once a meteor crater. It was filled with sediment, then buried beneath younger rocks. The smaller circular feature is a younger impact crater that formed in the surface above the rocks that buried the large crater. Later, erosion removed all of the material that covered the larger, buried crater, except in the location of the small crater. This pair of martian landforms is located near 17.6 degrees N, 312.8 degrees W. The image covers an area 3 km (1.9 mi) wide and is illuminated from the lower left.

About the Missions

Launched on 2 June 2003 from Baikonur (Kazakhstan) on board a Russian Soyuz operated by Starsem, the European probe – built for ESA by a European team of industrial companies led by Astrium – carries seven scientific instruments that will perform a series of remote-sensing experiments designed to shed new light on the Martian atmosphere, the planet’s structure and its geology. In particular, the British-made Beagle 2 lander will contribute to the search for traces of life on Mars through exobiology experiments and geochemistry research.

By launching the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft in November 1996, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory began America’s return to Mars after a 20-year absence. The Surveyor spacecraft is a rectangular-shaped box with wing-like projections extending from opposite sides. When fully loaded with propellant at the time of launch, the spacecraft weighed only 1,060-kilograms (2,342 pounds). The spacecraft travelled nearly 750 million kilometers (466 million miles) over the course of a 300-day cruise to reach Mars on September 11, 1997. During mapping operations, the spacecraft circled Mars once every 118 minutes at an average altitude of 378 kilometers (235 miles). After mapping finishes, the spacecraft will function as a communications satellite to relay data back to Earth from surface landers launched as part of future Mars missions.

2001 Mars Odyssey launched on April 7, 2001, and arrived at Mars on October 24, 2001. The mission is mapping the amount and distribution of chemical elements and minerals that make up the Martian surface. The spacecraft especially looks for hydrogen, most likely in the form of water ice, in the shallow subsurface of Mars. One of its three primary instruments is called THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System), for determining the distribution of minerals, particularly those that can only form in the presence of water. It also provides the communications relay for U.S. and international landers, including missions in NASA’s Mars Program, the Mars Exploration Rovers. The name "2001 Mars Odyssey" was selected as a tribute to the vision and spirit of space exploration as embodied in the works of renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

Related Web Pages

Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Malin Space Systems
Mars Global Surveyor
Arizona State THEMIS
Mars 2001 Odyssey