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Mars Express' 10th birthday celebrated with Martian atlas

Jury-rigged and underfunded, ESA veteran still has it where it counts

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Ten years after the Mars Express first launched into the skies from Asian steppes, the European Space Agency has released a full-planet atlas of the distribution of Martian volcanos, mineral fields, and dust dunes.

"The history of Mars is encoded in its minerals," said Alvaro Giménez, ESA's director of science and robotic exploration in a statement. "These new global views, made possible thanks to the longevity of ESA's Mars Express mission, are helping us to unlock the secrets of 4.6 billion years of planetary evolution.

The atlas shows a rotating map of the volcanos that the Mars Express originally went to find, and which has sent back images of former caldera lakes and misty volcano tops blowing ice in the wind. It has also mapped the minerals formed by volcanism and discovered evidence of a massive seismically disturbed period 3.7 billion years ago.

Mars Express was also put in orbit to look for evidence of water, and the probe's OMEGA (Observatoire pour la Minéralogie, l'Eau, les Glaces et l'Activité) spectrometer has spotted large fields of hydrated minerals and salts. It has also confirmed that there are patches of water and carbon ice on the planet's polar ice caps.

Data from the Mars Express has been pivotal in missions such as NASA's Curiosity atomic tank, which is currently creeping across the Martian surface. The mapping of minerals such as clay that are formed in the presence of water helped decide on the landing site and route plan for JPL's 1.5-ton Red Planet rover.

As for the dust which gives Mars that nickname, Mars Express has mapped the movement and concentrations of the ferric oxide dust, finding huge deposits on the planet's northern lowlands and the volcanic province of Tharsis.

"Collectively, these mineral maps provide unique records of the planet’s evolution through time. They exhibit the role water and volcanic processes played over the entire planet, spanning geological aeons,” said Jean-Pierre Bibring, OMEGA's Principal Investigator.

Using data from Mars Express, scientists now think the planet has gone through three distinct stages. The earliest phase was a benign one, with liquid water on the surface laying down beds of minerals and water-formed rocks. The probe only picks these up in formations more than four billion years old.

But this relative paradise lasted only a few million years before a rash of volcanos broke out across the planet's surface and spent the next billon years spewing out sulphur dioxide. For the 3.5 billion years since then, the planet has remained cold, frigid, and with what little water that remains confined to the poles.

Mars Express has also had some close encounters with one of the planet's moons, Phobos, coming within 67 kilometers of it in orbit and snatching video of the irregularly-shaped rock crossing over the face of the Solar System's big daddy Jupiter.

A shaky start ends in success

All-in-all, ESA scientists can be well satisfied with the progress of Mars Express, the agency's first successful Martian probe, but the mission's initial signs didn't look good at all.

After its launch at the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan, the Mars Express spent six months in transit – a speedy trip that gave it the "Express" moniker – and arrived in orbit on Christmas Day (because no one can accuse Europeans of not having style).

Its arrival was marred with tragedy, at least for a lot of Britons. Mars Express carried our home-grown Beagle 2 lander, an instrument built on a shoestring and designed to look for signs of life. It was due to send back a signal as a Christmas present for the nation, but instead there was silence, and the mission was declared lost two months later.

A subsequent investigation found that the parachutes used to slow the lander's descent weren't large enough to slow the Beagle 2 to a safe speed. After they released Beagle 2's airbags, designed to cushion its final landing, they weren't enough to save the craft, NASA imagery showed.

Mars Express has had more luck with the MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) experiment. In 2005, the ESA crew unfurled 47 meters of radar boom from the probe and used MARSIS to find huge volumes of ice under the Martian southern pole, which if melted would cover the entire planet in 36 feet of water.

Since then, the probe has suffered sporadic problems, with occasional trips into reset mode, but it has been problems with funding on Earth that have caused bigger issues. ESA considered shutting down the mission for funding reasons in 2005 (and has considered its retirement since for the same reasons), but it now has funding until at least 2014.

The Mars Express also gave El Reg an exclusive, when in August 2011 the probe was again flicking into safe mode, owing to problems with the 12Gb Solid State Mass Memory (SSMM) systems used for control and communications. The team managed to jury-rig a solution that in fact turned out to be more efficient than using the software as it was designed, and the Mars Express carried on strong.

Mars Express is still going strong, and is keeping an eye on Martian upstarts like Curiosity. With any luck, it may be scanning the Red Planet for many more years to come, and maybe one day will form an exhibit at the Martian Academy of Sciences. ®

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