ESA's Mars Webcam and the Real Science it Produces

from Michael Khan, 02. August 2009, 12:03

For about a year now, the European Space Agency ESA has been putting online images produced by the most distant webcam in the solar system: the VMC on the ESA Mars orbiter Mars Express, or MEX, as its operators affectionately call it.

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This free service to the worldwide community of amateur Mars aficionados has led to considerable interest and impressive results. Obviously, the VMC image quality does not even remotely resemble that of a "real" imaging science instrument like the HRSC on MEX or the HiRise on MRO.

But we should not forget that the VMC images are still far better than anything available even to professional astronomers until the first space probes reached Mars, starting with Mariner 4 less than 45 years ago. No wonder an active community has formed that competes for the best image to extracted from the available raw material. Like true scientists, and in line with the traditions of amateur astronomers, the members of this community interact and cooperate internationally. (Please also note the "background information" in the annex to this post.)

Serious scientific analysis is possible because ESA makes available not only the raw images, but also vital data such as the orbital locations at the time the images were produced.

On July 2,  2009 ESA uploaded a set of new images that apparently showed a meteorological phenomenon: a possible cloud formation near the volcano Arsia Mons on the Tharsis highlands on Mars. On July 10, 2009 a second set of the images of the same region followed. The users were asked for their interpretation of the data. 

One of the most active members of the VMC community, Mike Malaska from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, post-processed and analyzed the sequence of images and wrote a paper that he kindly allowed to ESA to publish. Mike's paper can be downloaded here

The paper starts with a detailed description of the image processing performed, so the reader can reproduce how Mike arrived at his results. Then follows the discussion, starting with an in-depth literature survey, which supports Mike's view that what the images show is a Martian manifestation of lee waves, a phenomenon commonly observed over terrestrial mountain ranges. 

My opinion: A very thorough and well-researched analysis! Congratulations to the author. I am looking forward to Mike's next scientific paper.

 One of the VMC images in the 2 July 2009 set. It shows the three shield volcanoes Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons und Ascraeus Mons (from left to right). The phenomenon referred to here is the lighter coloured stripe above Arsia Mons. In this image, North is to the right. The even larger volcano Olympus Mons is barely discernible, it is in the dusk, a bit to the right above Pavonis Mons.


More Information

First set of VMC images of the Tharsis region from 2 July 2009, including  added data

Second Set of VMC images of the Tharsis region from 10 July 2009, including added data 

Mike Malaska's paper in PDF format

Image material from Mike Malaska's paper on Flickr 


Annex: Some Background Information

This looks like the right time and place for some background information on how the public dissemination of scientific data from ESA spacecraft is organized, and also a large dose of editorializing. If you think that the procedure I describe below is not a good way of getting things done, then you are absolutely right - it is not a good way. 

Unlike many other space agencies and their missions, typically ESA receives funding only for the design, building, launch and operation of their scientific spacecraft. The instruments are financed separately, which means that ESA then has no rights to the data obtained and no say on how they should be disseminated. This also means that ESA has limited control over the breadth and depth of public outreach activities for most of its missions.

If the outside parties hat are in possession of the copyright on the obtained data do engage in adequate public outreach, then ESA enthusiastically supports this and includes all provided material on the web site of the respective mission. If the parties in question for any reason do not provide such material, then there is not much scope for real pressure that ESA could bring to bear.

But the VMC is different. As it is not a scientific instrument, ESA can use it as they see fit. In this case they decided to make it everyone's webcam at Mars. 

Of course, the situation I just described concerning the real scientific instruments raises a lot of added questions.  

It is an unsatisfactory arrangement for all sides, a real lose-lose situation. ESA takes a lot of undeserved flak for the perceived lack of public outreach work. Conversely, the parties - mostly scientific research institutes - that hold the rights to the data are the first to suffer if the general public is unaware of their work and as a consequence nobody cares, so there is no public support, no funding, no follow-up work. 

So if everyone ultimately loses out, then how did this mess come about in the first place? Politics. It's just a general symptom of the way things are run in Europe. We have European institutions, like the EU, ESA and others (BTW, ESA is not the space agency of the European Union) but we also have the individual member states jealously defending their home turf, even if this ultimately does them more harm than good.

In this increasingly multi-polar world, Europe is stacked against some pretty big players: The United States, China and India, to name but a few. The Latin American countries might be forming some political union in the long term, creating another heavyweight. Russia arguably is a large and powerful country and will take a more active place by virtue of its sheer size and resources. Europe's only hope to maintain a strong position among these massive forces is via increased unification. 

Although I firmly believe this to apply in all venues of politics and economics, the subject of my blog is space research, so I'll try not to digress too far from this topic. Spaceflight arguably is a field where ventures typically get large and demanding, but it involves numerous key technologies, so getting these ventures done is not an option, it's a must.

It doesn't make sense if a bunch of European mid-size countries each maintain their own national space agencies that compete with the European Space Agency ESA. Would NASA have accomplished what they did and still do if there also were a Californian Space Agency, a Floridian Space Agency, a Texan Space Agency, and who knows, even a North Dakotan Space Agency, each vying for funds and public support? Clearly not, such a scenario would be perceived as patently ridiculous.

But so is the current situation in Europe. NASA spends about five times more on space research, year after year, that ESA can. For each citizen of the ESA member states, on average less than 10 Euros per year go into space research. Can't do very much with that, can you? Right ... you can't. 

It is a vicious circle. Space missions require a certain "critical mass" to get going. Small, unknown players are unlikely to achieve this critical mass, nothing they ever do will really capture the public's hearts and minds. And because they don't get to do anything that captures the public's hearts and minds, something that people really understand and care about, these players will always remain small and unknown. 

Why does all of this matter?

Because of the related key technologies that are not going to originate from Europe if we do not muster the will to get the required research projects started.

Because our best and brightest young people will continue to go overseas in search of a place that will offer them  a chance to conduct cutting-edge research commensurate with their talents and qualifications. Please do not harbour the illusion that the pettiness and "think small" mentality that led to this mess is somehow by magic limited only to space research. 

If you are European and read this, it should really bother you. It is after all your future and that of your children that are at stake. If you are not European, you should still care, because a strong and vibrant European R&D scene would ultimately be of benefit to everyone.

Science is the one game where, if it is done properly, everybody wins. 


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