The first European mission to Mars, Mars Express, was launched in June 2003, and arrived at its destination orbit around Mars six months later after a 400 million kilometre journey through space.
Mars Express’ principal mission is to scrutinise the Martian subsurface, surface and atmosphere for traces of water, the fundamental requirement for life as we understand it. The seven-instrument package on board Mars Express is enabling scientists to analyse the atmosphere’s composition and global circulation, and providing information on the mineral composition of the Martian surface and the subsurface structure to a depth of several kilometres. As early as January 2004, the on-board stereo camera (HRSC) relayed its first pictures of the planet’s surface. These spectacular 3D colour images of unprecedented resolution and other data supplied by the mission confirmed the presence of water ice and carbon dioxide ice at Mars’ south polar cap.
The mission included a surface lander, Beagle 2, which was flawlessly released for descent as Mars Express approached its final orbit. Disappointingly, no contact has since been made with Beagle 2, despite numerous communications attempts.
Mars Express’ nominal mission lifetime was for at least one Martian year, 687 Earth days. A mission extension was granted which will take the operations up to 31 December 2014, subject to a review in 2012.
Mars Express completed its 7,777th orbit around Mars on 26 January 2010. As it circles the Red Planet, the point of orbit closest to Mars changes, giving the scientific instruments coverage of the entire Martian surface at different angles. Data collected by the orbiting spacecraft is stored onboard and transmitted back to Earth. A highlight for 2010 was a series of flybys of the moon Phobos, with the closest approach being just 50 km away.
Airbus Defence and Space is at the heart of the Mars Express mission. Airbus Defence and Space France was prime contractor to ESA for the orbiter’s design and manufacture, Airbus Defence and Space Germany was responsible for the on-board high-resolution stereo camera (HRSC), and Airbus Defence and Space UK provided the spacecraft propulsion system and led the Beagle 2 design and manufacturing team. Airbus Defence and Space France provided the lander’s heat shield and thermal aft system. The company is also the largest shareholder in Starsem, the French–Russian company whose Soyuz/Fregat vehicle launched the mission.