With all of the attention that NASA’s rovers Opportunity and Curiosity have been getting, and deservedly so, we might forget sometimes that there are still other spacecraft orbiting Mars as well. NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continue to return amazing high-resolution views of the planet from orbit, but there is also the ESA’s Mars Express, a European probe which is now celebrating its tenth year in orbit and still going strong.
For the tenth anniversary of Mars Express’ launch, the ESA has released new global maps which show the distribution of minerals formed by water, volcanic activity and weathering (see video below).
As Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, explains, “The history of Mars is encoded in its minerals. 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 released today will help to determine future landing sites for the next generation of Mars landers and rovers, and identify sites of special interest for future manned missions, helping to keep Europe at the forefront of planetary exploration.”
The maps are compiled from data collected by the OMEGA mineralogical mapper on the spacecraft, from the ten years so far. Separate maps highlight the distribution of hydrated minerals, olivine, pyroxene, ferric oxide and dust. Collectively, they present a global view of the geological history of Mars, a planet which once had abundant water on its surface, but is now a cold, dry desert.
“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, Principal Investigator for OMEGA.
The mineralogical maps are by far not the only accomplishment by Mars Express; the long-lived probe has also been examining the martian subsurface, measuring the depth of the north and south polar ice caps and searching for other underground ice deposits, maybe even aquifers. It has analyzed the martian atmosphere, including the detection of methane, a finding of particular interest since it can originate from either geological or biological processes (on Earth, most methane comes from bacteria and volcanoes). Even the two tiny martian moons, Phobos and Deimos have been studied in detail.
Altogether, more than 95% of the martian surface has now been photographed by Mars Express, including some in stereo views, enabling the creation of spectacular 3-D images. Olivier Witasse, ESA’s Mars Express Project Scientist, sums it up nicely: “The decade-long observations by Mars Express of all aspects of the martian environment are providing us with a truly global perspective on the history of the Red Planet, paving the way for the next generation of Mars exploration missions.”
Here’s hoping that Mars Express will continue for another ten years, providing even more insight into the history and beauty of this fascinating world.
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