Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

Don't miss the first ever 'live stream' from Mars at 5pm tonight

All aboard the Mars Express for a ‘live stream’ of the Red Planet.

Today, at 5pm BST, the European Space Agency (ESA) will be sharing images sent directly from Mars by its ‘long-lived but still highly productive’ Martian orbiter. With a lag time of around only 18 minutes, viewers will witness the closest thing to a livestream as possible.

The event, to celebrate the 20th birthday of Mars Express, will be available on YouTube.

Long-term recording was never part of the original plan for the orbiter’s Visual Monitoring Camera, nicknamed the Mars Webcam. Its original job was to monitor the separation of the Beagle 2 lander from the ‘MEX’ spacecraft. And while Beagle 2 failed to signal back home (it was later discovered two of its solar panels failed to open, trapping the communications antenna), the Mars Webcam performed perfectly – before being switched off.

However, in 2007 it was switched back on, and used to help engage the public through outreach activities, including campaigns to encourage space enthusiasts and schools to suggest observations of Mars. Through this, the ESA team realised the VMC could also be used for ‘proper’ scientific observations.

‘We developed new, more sophisticated methods of operations and image processing, to get better results from the camera, turning it into Mars Express’s eighth science instrument,’ says Jorge Hernández Bernal, part of the VMC team.

‘From these images, we discovered a great deal, including the evolution of a rare elongated cloud formation hovering above one of Mars’ most famous volcanoes – the 20km-high Arsia Mons.’

The peculiar cloud forms when fast winds hit the summit of the volcano, cooling the atmosphere above and leading to condensation – but creates the illusion of smoke pouring out of the crater.

While that particular phenomenon probably won’t be on display tonight, the team hopes a whole array of other Martian landscapes will be – but cannot be sure.

‘This is an old camera, originally planned for engineering purposes, at a distance of almost 300million kilometres from Earth – this hasn’t been tried before and to be honest, we’re not 100% certain it’ll work,” says James Godfrey, spacecraft operations manager at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany. 

Due to the logistics of capturing and transmitting images from space, few are received on Earth so quickly, often being stored on board the spacecraft that collected them for hours or days until they’re in the right place to make contact.

However, ‘live’ footage has been captured on rare occasions, including during the Moon landings in 1969, and last year when Nasa successfully crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid while testing its planetary defence capabilities.

‘I’m pretty optimistic,’ added Godfrey. ‘Normally, we see images from Mars and know that they were taken days before. I’m excited to see Mars as it is now – as close to a Martian ‘now’ as we can possibly get!’

Viewers can watch the stream above from 5pm tonight. And while the ESA will be tweeting about the event, Mars Express has joined others in departing the platform for Mastodon.

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