We have security cameras watching our daily habits, we watch voyeuristic TV shows of social misfits trapped in a house, we use webcams to transmit our musings on Youtube and we are constantly being monitored by hi-res satellite cameras. What can we possibly survey now? Surely every inch of the planet is under someone’s watchful eye? This planet maybe. By a stroke of luck, ESA scientists have just realised that a surplus camera on board the Mars Express orbiter could be switched back on and used as an interplanetary webcam. Big Brother is now keeping a watchful eye on the Red Planet too…
Back in 2003, the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) had one task and one task only: keep a watchful eye over the UK’s Beagle 2 Mars lander as it separated from Mars Express and began its descent to the planet’s atmosphere. This fairly “normal” camera was only intended to verify that Beagle 2 had separated and begun on its correct trajectory. According to the only VMC/Beagle 2 image below, separation went as planned as we see the bright lander disk to the left of the image. The problems started later on for the lander as something happened to the robot on re-entry.
So, task complete, the VMC was switched off and forgotten about. After all, who needs a comparatively low-tech, glorified webcam orbiting Mars anyhow?
Hold on, an orbital webcam is actually pretty cool!
It would appear ESA scientists thought the same thing, pointing out that the VMC is “an ordinary camera in an extraordinary location.” For three years the VMC had been left dormant, until in 2007 the Mars Express Flight Control Team based at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany began testing the camera to see if it could be powered up again. The team couldn’t be sure if this little camera would even function as it was designed as a single-use instrument and it had been frozen in deep space for years.
But determined to make use of this instrument, the ESOC team were successful at bringing the VMC back online. For the last few months, scientists have been fine tuning the cameras optics to make it better at observing orbital features, and now this “ordinary” camera has been taking some “extraordinary” pictures. Geological features, Mars crescents and the Martian dynamic weather have been captured, making this a great little tool to see Mars from orbit.
Now, the VMC is online and taking pictures of Mars for us to see at home. What’s more ESA is inviting us to help with processing the raw images to come from the “Mars Webcam.”
For more information, see the ESA VMC page.