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Mars Express Takes a Long Look

23 January 2004 (All day)
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Martian canyonlands. Mars Express captured the mesas and steep cliffs of Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system.

The first results have arrived from the Mars Express orbiter, and European Space Agency (ESA) scientists are jubilant. For starters, the orbiter beamed back incredibly detailed stereo photos of the surface, measured the ozone distribution in the planet's atmosphere, and confirmed the presence of water ice at the south pole. "Boy, this is a great start," ESA's director of science David Southwood said this morning at a press conference in Darmstadt, Germany. "This bodes very well for the rest of the mission."

Even though the British lander Beagle 2 appears to be lost, its mother ship Mars Express has successfully maneuvered into a polar orbit. From this vantage, seven instruments will scrutinize the whole planet for at least 2 years. The suite includes spectrometers to study the composition of the surface and the thin atmosphere, and a novel color camera for mapping the planet in 3D at 10-meter resolution. "We will decipher the geological history of Mars," boasts camera team leader Gerhard Neukum of the Free University in Berlin, Germany.

Although water ice was known to exist at the polar caps of Mars (see ScienceNOW, 28 May, 2002), Mars Express has now observed its spectroscopic signature for the first time. In April, an Italian radar instrument will search for vast reservoirs of subsurface ice, following up on hints from NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.

The most impressive results have been produced by Neukum's camera. The crisp pictures released today show mesas and canyons, sinuous valleys apparently carved by running water, features that hint at former glaciation, and "waterfalls" of dust at the slope of a volcanic caldera. So far, 1.9 million square kilometers have been mapped--an area the size of Mexico. According to Neukum, the combination of large coverage, high resolution, and 3D information is unique. "This hasn't even been achieved yet for our own Earth," he says. "The data we're collecting will keep us busy for many years to come."

Related sites
Mars Express
Background on Mars Express's camera
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