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10 years after launch, missions to Mars just keep going ... and going

F. Jansen / ESA / DLR / FU Berlin / G. Neukum

This mosaic view of Mars' north polar ice cap was created from 57 images captured by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. The ice cap spans approximately 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) and is seen here in polar stereographic projection.



The European Space Agency is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Mars Express orbiter's liftoff this week, and the launch anniversaries for NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers are coming soon as well. These celebrations aren't merely occasions to look back, but they're also opportunities to look forward to more wonders from the Red Planet.


2003 was a banner year for Mars missions: Mars Express was launched on June 2 from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. NASA's Spirit rover began its cruise to Mars from Cape Canaveral on June 10, and the Opportunity rover followed on July 7. Mars Express went into Martian orbit in December 2003, with a primary mapping mission that was scheduled to last two Earth years. Spirit and Opportunity landed in January 2004 for 90-day primary missions.

All those probes lasted far longer: Spirit finally gave up the ghost in 2010, but Mars Express and Opportunity are still going strong. ESA's 10th-anniversary celebration includes the release of a new mosaic of Mars' north polar ice cap, as well as a global atlas tracing the history of water and volcanic activity on the Red Planet. The maps were built from almost 10 years of data collected by Mars Express' OMEGA mineralogical mapper.

"The atlas released today will help to determine future landing sites for the next generation of Mars landers and rovers, and identify sites of special interest for future manned missions, helping to keep Europe at the forefront of planetary exploration," Alvaro Gimenez, ESA's director of science and robotic exploration, said in Monday's announcement.

The way ESA sees it, the most interesting places include exposures of hydrated minerals along the boundary between Mars' low northern plains and cratered highlands. Some places show an overlap between volcanic outcrops and hydrated minerals, hinting at interactions between Martian fire and ice in ancient times. One such location is Nili Fossae, which may have been a hydrothermal hot spot for life billions of years ago.

"These are very special sites — possibly unique within the entire solar system — with well-preserved records of the environment during the few hundreds of millions of years following planet formation, during which life might have emerged on Earth and possibly at Mars," said OMEGA's principal investigator, Jean-Pierre Bibring.

You can watch a replay of ESA's 90-minute anniversary celebration, or get the condensed version in shorter videos that highlight the mineral maps as well as Mars Express' 10 years of adventure. The adventure isn't over yet: The orbiter is slated to coordinate measurements of the Martian atmosphere with NASA's Maven probe, due for launch in November. It'll make its closest-ever flyby of the Martian moon Phobos (36 miles, or 58 kilometers) in December. In October 2014, Mars Express will watch the Red Planet's close encounter with Comet Siding Spring, and in 2016 it will monitor the arrival of ESA's Exomars probes.

Will the solar-powered Opportunity rover still be in operation then, 13 years after launch? How about NASA's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, which will have spent four years on the Red Planet by that time? Based on past history, I wouldn't bet against them.

More about Mars:


For the latest on NASA's Curiosity rover, tune in a mission update at 2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday. The media teleconference will be streamed online via NASA's news audio webpage and Ustream.tv. Visuals will be posted at the start of the event on the Mars Science Laboratory website.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.