An unprecedented catalogue of more than 21,000 images taken by a webcam on ESA’s Mars Express is proving its worth as a science instrument, providing a global survey of unusual high-altitude cloud features on the Red Planet.
The low-resolution camera was originally installed on Mars Express for visual confirmation that the Beagle-2 lander had separated in 2003. In 2007 it was switched back on and used primarily for outreach, education and citizen science, with images automatically posted to a dedicated Flickr page, sometimes within just 75 minutes of being taken at Mars.
Last year, with new software, the camera was adopted as a supporting science instrument. Now, the first paper has been published [in Icarus], on detached, high-altitude cloud features and dust storms over the edge, or ‘limb’, of the planet.
While these limb clouds can be imaged by other instruments or spacecraft, it is not necessarily their main task – they are usually looking directly at the surface with a narrow field of view that covers a small portion of the planet for specialised study. By contrast, the webcam often has a global view of the full limb.
“For this reason, limb observations in general are not so numerous, and this is why our images are so valuable in contributing to our understanding of atmospheric phenomena, ” says Agustin Sánchez-Lavega, lead author of the study from the University del Pais Vasco in Bilbao, Spain.
“Combining with models and other datasets we were able to gain a better insight to understanding atmospheric transport and seasonal variations that play a role in generating the high-altitude cloud features.” [More at links]