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Mars Express Sets New Relay Record for Martian Ground Missions


An artist's impression of Mars Express.

An artist’s impression of the Mars Express spacecraft.
Illustration: ESA

For 19 years, the Mars Express spacecraft has orbited the Red Planet, providing breathtaking views and valuable insights of Mars. The hard-working orbiter has not only relayed its own data back to Earth, but also provided a communication line between other Martian missions and ground control.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express recently set a new record by relaying data for a total of seven different Mars surface missions, an important feat in helping scientists paint a complete picture of the planet’s history, the space agency announced on Friday. Its latest long-distance call was made on behalf of NASA’s Perseverance rover, the Martian robot that has been roaming the Red Planet since February 2021.

This isn’t the first time a Martian rover borrowed a line to Earth from the Mars Express spacecraft. In 2004, the orbiter flew over NASA’s Spirit rover and beamed a series of commands down to the robot, while Spirit sent up its data for Mars Express to relay it back to Earth. This marked the first time two space agencies created a communications network around another planet.

After its three-way-call with Spirit and ground control, ESA’s Mars Express conducted seven communication tests with Spirit’s twin rover, Opportunity, in 2008. Later on in 2012, Mars Express transferred precious data from NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been roaming Mars for 10 years, to mission control. The spacecraft did so by pointing its lander communication antenna towards Curiosity for 15 minutes while the rover relayed its data to it, and then pointing its more powerful high-gain antenna towards Earth to downlink the information. The data in question was a photo of a rock on Mars, and it marked the first time Mars Express was used to transfer scientific data.

Aside from the four NASA robots, Mars Express also relayed data from NASA’s InSight Lander and China’s Zhurong rover. The orbiter also helped track the landing of the NASA Phoenix Lander in May 2008.

The Mars Express spacecraft left Earth for Mars in June 2003 and entered Martian orbit following a six-month journey through space. The aging orbiter is still going strong and recently had a much-needed software upgrade to improve its ability to send and receive signals. Although Mars Express is ESA’s lowest-cost mission to date, it has been delivering valuable data on Mars, as well as its moon Phobos. After 19 years in service, the orbiter may end its mission by December of this year, and finally hang up its line to Earth.

More: A Mars Spacecraft Has Been Running on Windows 98 Era Software for 19 Years, But No More



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