Our neighbouring Red Planet Mars was named after the Roman god of War because of its Red colour; we now know thanks to various missions that it gets this colour due to iron-rich minerals on its surface. Mars has been known for thousands of years and has always been a great source of intrigue for us. For centuries it has been speculated that there could have once been life on Mars because of its similarity to Earth, both planets have a similar surface area and relativity similar atmospheres when compared to other planets. However nothing has yet been detected on its rocky surface but the search goes on for the elixir of life – water.
ESA launched the Mars Express (MEX) satellite along with the Beagle 2 lander from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 2 June 2003 and the satellite celebrated one Martian year of operations (23 Earth months) in November 2005. ESA has since extended the funding for Mars Express till December 2014.
There are seven instruments on MEX which help scientists study Mars and its moons. The mission aims are to map the entire surface of Mars, produce a map of the mineral composition of the surface, look at the effect of the atmosphere on the surface, and the interaction of the atmosphere with the solar wind.
So far the instruments have sent back many exciting images and scientific data. There are perspective images of the giant (extinct) volcano Olympus Mons, which is 25km high with a caldera 65km across. The spacecraft discovered localised Martian auroras due to magnetic anomalies. MEX has imaged several of the deep valleys on Mars, and found evidence of flooding at the Mangala Valles. It found evidence of water ice at both the North and South Poles of Mars. One instrument has detected hydrated minerals that form only in the presence of liquid water, providing confirmation that Mars was once much wetter than it is today, and demonstrating that conditions may have once been favourable for life to evolve. The satellite also passed close to the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, at various times, allowing the instruments to study them at close range.
RAL Space supplied the micro-channel plates for ASPERA-3 (Analyzer of Space Plasma and EneRgetic Atoms), one of the instruments on Mars Express. We were also part of the team, led by IRF Sweden, studying the erosion of the atmosphere by the solar wind and are collaborating with IFSI Italy to study dust in the atmosphere. We have also provided the Payload Operations Service for Mars Express supporting science operations under contract to ESA.