Mars Express Mission

ROLE: Mars observation and exploration
LAUNCH DATE: 2 June 2003
LAUNCHER/LOCATION: Soyuz-Fregat/Baikonur, Kazakhstan
LAUNCH MASS: 1223 kg
ORBIT: Quasi-polar orbit
NOMINAL: One Martian year (687 days Earth days)
MISSION: | On extension to 2012

Mars Express is the first mission of the European Space Agency directed to another planet in the Solar System. It has costed less then any other previous mission of this kind and it has been realised in record time.
The name, Mars Express, is due to its rapid design and development time.
For its realisation great importance have had the technological achievements acquired during Mars 96, the unsuccessful Russian mission to the red planet, and Rosetta mission, launched by ESA in March 2004, whose aim has been the study of the origin of the comets and of their influence on Solar System birth.
Mars Express primary object has been the search for water in Mars atmosphere and subsoil, at a liquid and/or solid state, in the form of underground rivers, pools, aquifers or permafrost.
It will be used also for the communications between the Earth and the NASA space vehicles present on Mars surface, becoming a central link in the international effort for the planet exploration.
It is one of the five on-going missions for Mars exploration, three of which are American, Mars Exploration Rover, 2001 Mars Odissey and Mars Global Surveyor, organised and developed by NASA, and one is Japanese, NOZOMI (Hope), from the Japanese Space Agency.
Mars, beyond fascinating conjectures, is the only planet of the Solar System on which it may be the possibility to find trace of some kind of life, past or even present, and on which we may suppose a future manned exploration or even colonisation.

The Journey

Mars Express travelled to the Red Planet in seven months arriving in Mars orbit on 25 December 2003. It has been launched on 2 June 2003 by a Soyuz-Fregat launcher from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
It has remained in Mars orbit for one Martian year, 687 Earth days, which has represented the mission nominal duration. In September 2005, ESA took the decision to extend the mission by an additional Martian year, starting in December 2005 and ending on 31 October 2007.
During this period, it was expected that the point of the orbit closest to Mars was running in such a way as to give the instruments on board the ability to cover the entire surface of Mars catching it from every angle.
Later, after an extension of two more years (until December 2009) it was decided to extend the mission until the end of 2012.

The Instruments

Mars Express is equipped with seven instruments for remote sensing observation of Mars atmosphere, surface and subsoil.
Onboard the aircraft there was also a lander, Beagle 2, but, unfortunately, after the separation from the orbiter, there were no more traces of it and there was no possibility to establish a contact with it
The lander task would have been to carry out different analysis, environmental, exobiological, geo-chimical, etc., aimed to collect data on Mars present structure, also to reconstruct its past life.

Besides MARSIS radar, on Mars Express are mounted the following scientific payloads:

  • HRSC High/Super Resolution Stereo Colour Imager, a very-high resolution stereoscopic camera to perform a 3D colour map of the planet, with a resolution of 10m and to photograph some areas with a resolution of only 2m;
  • OMEGA Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer to produce the first mineralogical map of the planet. Using the fact that different materials absorb and radiate light at different wavelengths, OMEGA has to build up a map of the surface composition by analysing sunlight that has been absorbed and re-emitted by the surface;
  • Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS), to perform a more accurate study of this mineralogical map and of the Martian atmosphere composition. The principle behind PFS is similar to that behind OMEGA: both instruments identify complex molecules from the wavelengths the molecules absorb from sunlight and from the infrared radiation (heat) they emit. PFS, however, will take measurements over a wider wavelength range (1.2-45 Ám) than OMEGA, which makes it best suited for identifying molecules in the atmosphere;
  • ASPERA Energetic Neutral Atoms Analyser to investigate the interaction between the upper atmosphere and the medium interplanetary, to measure the number of atoms of oxygen and hydrogen (the constituents of water) interacting with the Solar wind and study the regions where they interact;
  • SPICAM Ultraviolet and Infrared Atmospheric Spectrometer to obtain information on the composition of the atmosphere from the wavelengths of sunlight that the atmosphere absorbs. The instrument consists of two sensors, one for UV light (118-320 nm), and the other for IR light (1-1.7 micron);
  • Mars Radio Science Experiment (MaRS), will use the radio signals which transmit data and instructions between the space vehicle and the Earth, to probe the ionosphere, the atmosphere, the surface and even Mars subsoil.

Mars Express
ESA-Medialab Illustration

Mars, Monte Olympus western side,
3D photo taken by the HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera).
Photo ESA/DLR/FU (G.Neukum)

Mars, Louros Valles,
3D photo taken by the HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera).
Photo ESA/DLR/FU (G.Neukum)

Mars, Louros Valles,
3D photo taken by the HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera).
Photo ESA/DLR/FU (G.Neukum)