For the past 20 years, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express has been orbiting the Red Planet and sending back precious data that reveal the Martian landscape. Our views of Mars, however, have always suffered from a slight technical delay, taking hours or sometimes days to transmit their way back to Earth. That’s set to change with the first Martian livestream beamed directly from the red planet.
On Friday, ESA will stream a live feed of images taken by Mars Express to celebrate the orbiter’s anniversary, the space agency announced this week. The images will be beamed directly from the spacecraft’s Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC), also known as the Mars Webcam, and a new image will be shown roughly every 50 seconds for the full duration of the hour-long event.
The livestream is scheduled to begin on June 2 at 12:00 p.m. ET. You can tune in to the Martian livestream through ESA’s YouTube Channel or through the feed below.
The Mars Webcam was originally designed for one task: monitor the separation of the Beagle 2 lander from the Mars Express spacecraft. After it delivered its initial set of data, the Mars Webcam was turned off. Around four years later, however, the camera was turned back on initially for outreach activities, but later repurposed as a science instrument on its own.
“We developed new, more sophisticated methods of operations and image processing, to get better results from the camera, turning it into Mars Express’s 8th science instrument,” Jorge Hernández Bernal, part of the VMC team, said in the ESA statement.
Images of Mars taken by the camera are stored on board the spacecraft and downlinked to mission control as a batch every couple of days. Afterwards, they are processed and made available for viewing. This is quite typical for most spacecraft since most data collection tends to take place when they are not in direct contact with a ground station antenna on Earth. The spacecraft could either be on the other side of Mars or the Sun, or their antennas could be facing away from Earth, according to ESA.
That’s why whenever we see an image of a celestial body, it doesn’t really reflect what it looks like at this very moment. Instead of an Instagram Live, we typically get a “late gram” or one of those photo dumps that show highlights taken weeks ago.
During Friday’s one-hour livestream, however, we’ll be treated to images taken from Mars’ orbit just 18 minutes before they appear on our screens. That’s how long it takes the signal to travel from Mars to Earth, in addition to an extra minute for the data to go through wires and servers on the ground. ESA added a disclaimer in their announcement that this has never been done before, therefore the timing may be a bit off, if it even works at all.
“This is an old camera, originally planned for engineering purposes, at a distance of almost three million kilometers from Earth—this hasn’t been tried before and to be honest, we’re not 100% certain it’ll work,” James Godfrey, spacecraft operations manager at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, said in the statement. “But I’m pretty optimistic.”
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