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Mars Express

Concept model of the Mars Express spacecraft

Mars Express is a Mars exploration mission of the European Space Agency and Italian Space Agency. The spacecraft was launched on June 2 2003 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, using a Soyuz-Fregat rocket, and began its inter-planetary voyage. The use of the word "express" in this mission's name refers originally to the relatively short time of its voyage, which was launched in time when Earth and Mars was closer to each other than ever in recorded history (about 60,000 years). However it also describes nicely the speed and efficiency with which the spacecraft was designed and built.

The craft consists of the Mars Express Orbiter which also carried a lander, Beagle 2, designed to perform exobiology and geochemistry research. It was hoped the lander would shed light on whether Mars had once supported or possibly currently supports living organisms. Many of the instruments on the orbiter, including the camera systems and some spectrometers, are duplicates of those lost in the launch failure of the Russian Mars 96 mission in 1996 (European countries had provided much of the instrumentation and financing for that unsuccessful mission). The basic design of Mars Express is based on the ESA's Rosetta mission on which considerable money was spent developing the spacecraft. It is also being reused in the Venus Express mission. This is done to greatly reduce development time and cost and also increase reliablity.

The orbiter entered Mars orbit on December 25, 2003, and Beagle 2 entered Mars' atmosphere the same day. After repeated attempts to contact the lander failed, it was declared lost on February 6, 2004, by the Beagle 2 Management Board. On February 11, ESA announced an inquiry would be held into the failure of Beagle 2.

In the meantime, the Mars Express Orbiter has started its science phase and performs excellently at the start of a two year survey of Mars.

In 2005, ESA scientists reported that the OMEGA (Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer) instrument data indicates the presence of hydrated sulphates, silicates and various rock-forming minerals.

The Fourier spectrometer has detected methane in the atmosphere coming from areas near the equator with subsurface ice, a very important discovery indicating either some form of active vulcanism or subsurface microorganisms.

On May 4 2005, Mars Express deployed the first of its two 20-metre-long radar booms for its MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) experiment but the boom didn't lock fully into place. A week later European engineers had managed to deploy the boom properly. The three booms were originally scheduled to be deployed in April 2004, but this was delayed out of fear that the deployment could damage the spacecraft through a whiplash effect. The deployment of the second 20-metre boom, originally scheduled to be done a few days later, was delayed indefinitely. However, exposure to sunlight fixed the glitch, leading to new hope that the other booms would be deployed within a few weeks. Both 20-m booms are needed to create a 40-m dipole antenna for MARSIS to work; there is also a less crucial 7-metre-long monopole antenna remaining to be deployed. [1][2] [3]

Mars Express instruments

  • OMEGA (France)
  • SPICAM (France)
  • MARSIS (Italy)
  • PFS (Italy)
  • ASPERA (Sweden)
  • HRSC (Germany – produces high resolution images)

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