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Public get chance to image Mars from orbit

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Mar 9, 2015, 18:35 UTC

Sen—The European Space Agency (ESA) are making a camera on board its Mars Express orbiter available to the public for a three-day period in May, giving the opportunity for schools, astronomy clubs and other science groups to submit imaging requests for one of eight observation slots.

The Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC)—being dubbed the Mars webcam—was originally intended only to provide visual confirmation of the Beagle2 lander separation, but the simple, low-resolution camera has been recommissioned to deliver good quality pictures of Mars, including cloud and atmospheric activity as well as surface features.

Although VMC lacks the extreme resolution of the professional High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board Mars Express, it does allow the entire martian disk to be observed in a single image and can provide images of similar resolution and quality as those obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.

"We don't often get opportunities to ask schools or youth groups to work with instruments on an operating spacecraft, so when we do, it's important to get the best possible outreach value," Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Manager Michel Denis, told Sen. 

"With the VMC camera, you can do a lot of great science and art, and involving young people in a real, hands-on observation Mars campaign is extremely important for inspiring future scientists, engineers, artists and thinkers." 

In May, Mars will be in solar conjunction, on the opposite side of the Sun from the Earth, and radio signals between Earth and Mars Express will be disrupted due to the Sun's interference. As a result, the spacecraft's scientific payload will be switched off for a period of about five weeks and the VMC camera made available to be pointed at almost any target for a three-day period from 25–27 May.

Animation showing the Mars Express orbits around Mars during 25-27 May 2015. Credit: esablogs

Only the most promising targets will be selected, one slot per group. ESA expects that groups that are awarded a slot will use the images in a scientific or artistic project that makes full use of the visual information they contain.

Proposals should have strong educational value and must include the desired observation target, a brief note about why it is interesting and a description of the intended project that will fully exploit the images. 

On Mar. 19 the Mars Express mission team will provide a tutorial on the VMC camera via an #ESAHangout in Google+ and YouTube. Proposals can then be amended as needed, and all submissions must be in by Mar. 27. The successful proposals will be announced a few days later. The VMC image sets will be downloaded to Earth by May 28, and then delivered to participating groups electronically. 

Mars Express arrived at Mars in December 2003 and has been performing scientific measurements of the Red Planet since early 2004.  

Full details on the VMC Imaging Campaign timeline, eligibility, registration and technical information are available here

If you miss out on this opportunity with ESA's Mars Express, you can always make a suggestion about what images NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) should take with its HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera by registering for the 'HiWish' service here and posting your suggestions.

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Artist’s impression of Mars Express set against a 35 km-wide crater in the Vastitas Borealis region of Mars. Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin-G.Neukum