All Eyes on Mars

All Eyes on Mars

Three missions are converging on Mars this week to study the Red Planet from orbit and explore its surface. With the United States, United Arab Emirates and China all sending missions to Mars, we look at how Europe’s planetary research community is contributing to Mars exploration in 2021 and at its plans for the next few years.

 First image of Mars from Hope. Credit: MBRSC / UAE Space Agency / CU-LASP/EMM-EXI 

It’s a busy time at Mars. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) Space Agency’s first mission to Mars, Hope, performed a successful manoeuvre to enter a capture orbit on 9 February 2021. Once in its final science orbit, Hope will study dynamics in ​the martian atmosphere on a global scale, giving a more complete understanding of interactions between the atmospheric layers, and answering questions about how oxygen and hydrogen escape into space.

On 10 February, the Chinese Tianwen-1 (‘questioning the heavens’) mission, joined Hope in orbit around Mars.  Tianwen-1 will analyse the chemical composition of rock and dust and search for pockets of ice and liquid water and organics. Following three or four months of study of the surface, and a detailed survey of the proposed landing site, Tianwen-1 will release a lander and rover. If all goes to plan, the rover will explore Utopia Planitia, a flat plain within a large impact basin in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The region is covered by extensive sedimentary materials, with features that indicate that ice or water are present. 

Tianwen-1 carries 13 instruments, two of which have a small European involvement: The Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP), France, has contributed to the calibration of the LIBS spectrometer on the Tianwen-1 rover’s Mars Surface Composition Detector. The Space Research Institute (IWF-Graz) has contributed to the calibration of the magnetometer on the main satellite.

Completing the trio, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will arrive at Mars on 18 February. Mars 2020 mission will look for signs that there were habitable conditions on Mars in its early geological history, and seek evidence of past microbial life. The Perseverance rover and its helicopter partner, Ingenuity, will explore the terrain of Jezero Crater on Mars, which contains the remains of an ancient, partially-eroded river-delta. Jezero’s rocks date back to around the time that we think that life first arose on Earth. Perseverance will characterise its geological setting and collect a few core samples of the most promising rocks and soils. These will be set aside in a cache for collection and return to Earth by missions later this decade.

Annotated image of NASA Perseverance Rover
The instruments carried by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA

Of the seven primary scientific instruments carried by the Perseverance rover, three include significant European contributions: the weather station MEDA (provided by Spain with contributions from Finland), the remote-sensing laser micro-imaging SuperCam (provided by France/Spain) and the ground-penetrating radar RIMFAX (provided by Norway).

Although not part of the flotilla arriving at Mars this year, the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars mission will set off in the late summer or autumn of 2022 and land in the spring of 2023. The ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Rover is equipped with a drill that will sample the subsurface in places that are most likely to have habitable conditions preserved in ancient rocks.

The first ExoMars mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived at Mars in 2016, carries a suite of instruments to study traces of methane and other atmospheric gases. TGO will also act as a data relay for Perseverance (a service it already provides for the Curiosity and Insight missions) and, later, for the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover. ESA’s highly successful first mission to the Red Planet, Mars Express, which has been in orbit since 2003 and is still making important contributions to studies of the martian surface, atmosphere and ionosphere, is also playing a part in monitoring local conditions at Jezero Crater.

To find out more about Europe’s contribution to Mars missions, watch this EPSC2020 Session Showcase TP16 – European Exploration of Mars: From Mars Express to ExoMars and Beyond:

Europlanet 2024 RI and Mars Exploration

The Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure (RI) Transnational Access field sites (TA1) include terrestrial analogues that are relevant to both the areas of Mars that will be explored by Tianwen-1 and Perseverance. Terrestrial analogues play a vital role in understanding where and how life exists under extreme conditions on Earth, such as in hydrothermal systems in Iceland and Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, extreme acidic conditions at Rio Tinto in Spain and extreme salty conditions at Danakil’s Dallol volcano and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in Botswana.  In turn, this informs the mission teams searching to identify where life might have arisen on Mars.

Europlanet 2024 RI’s TA2 laboratory facilities also support the exploration and the search for biomarkers on Mars. The Centre for Microbial Life Detection in Graz provides expertise in extracting and sequencing DNA from microbial samples collected in extreme environments on Earth, as well as quantifying bacteria, archaea and fungi, and cultivating specialist microbes (e.g. anaerobes) that survive under these conditions.

Simulations and calibration measurements carried out at the spectroscopy laboratories at DLR and Grenoble will be used to interpret the spectroscopic data obtained by the Tianwen-1 orbiter. The Aarhus Mars Wind Tunnel and Open University’s Mars Chamber also include facilities capable of simulating Martian atmospheric conditions.

Early life on Mars may have been destroyed after the loss of its atmosphere, which provided a shield against harmful ultraviolet radiation. This means that finding evidence for past life may be through indirect means, for example by identifying chemical changes to minerals or specific reactions that are only induced by life. Samples taken from terrestrial analogues and analysed in laboratories can help interpret data from in-situ missions and refine techniques. However, within the limitations of what it is possible to launch into space, it is likely to be difficult for robotic missions operating on the surface of Mars to provide conclusive evidence of whether life has ever existed there. 

TA1.2: Iron precipitates in acidic conditions in Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto in Spain is a terrestrial analogues of Mars. Image credit: F Gomez.

NASA and ESA are collaborating on a Mars Sample Return campaign involving three missions stages: a sample collection rover (Perseverance); a Mars lander carrying a small ESA-led rover to ‘fetch’ and load the samples into NASA’s ‘Mars Ascent Vehicle’ that will launch them into Mars orbit; and a Mars orbiter to capture the sample container (led by NASA) and fly it the rest of the way to Earth (led by ESA).

The samples collected by Perseverance will contain martian rocks, soil, dust and atmosphere and are expected to be about 15 g of material each and be roughly the size of a stick of chalk. Bringing carefully selected rocks from Mars back to Earth for detailed study will enable much more complex and complete studies using state-of-the-art lab equipment. This will give a better quantitative understanding of whether the returned samples formed in environments where life could have existed and whether they may contain biosignatures

Europlanet 2024 RI Joint Research Activities (JRAs) involving the Natural History Museum, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, ETH Zurich and the Open University are supporting the development of techniques for non-destructive or minimally invasive characterisation and analysis of precious returned samples.

Europlanet 2024 RI is also offering virtual services to support observations and analysis.

A successful landing depends heavily on site selection and characterisation, tasks that are strongly tied to geologic mapping. Europlanet 2024 RI’s new geological mapping service, GMAP, fosters and supports mapping of the geology of all suitable Solar System bodies. In the case of the Moon and Mars this will include specific geologic and geomorphic mapping of past, proposed and future landing sites.

The virtual observatory for Solar System data, VESPA, hosts several data services from past Mars missions, including Mars-Express (OMEGA, HRSC, SPICAM), CRISM data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a Martian craters database, simulated atmospheric profiles (derived from the Mars Climate Database), Hubble Space Telescope observations, significant data about the magnetosphere, as well as access to the Planetary Science Archive (PSA). 

Mars image from PVOL database. Image taken on 8 February 2021 by Mike Hood in Kathleen, Georgia, USA.
Mars image from PVOL database. Image taken on 8 February 2021 by Mike Hood in Kathleen, Georgia, USA. Credit: M Hood.

VESPA tutorials support researchers in working with the data, for example to compare measured and simulated profiles in the martian atmosphere or in plasma data, to analyse spectral cubes or to identify overlapping datasets in surface maps and images. 

The Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory (PVOL) data service includes nearly 4000 observations of Mars contributed by amateur astronomers, which are used for research purposes by several professional and amateur teams.

Finally, Europlanet is developing educational resources that draw on missions and the latest research in laboratories and field sites to bring Mars into classrooms across Europe. Those students inspired by the missions in 2021 may one day have the opportunity to handle and analyse the samples collected and brought back from Mars by future missions.

Highlights from Year 1 of Europlanet 2024 RI

Highlights from Year 1 of Europlanet 2024 RI

Europlanet 2024 RI is one year old this week. Despite the pandemic, there has been a great deal of activity and progress over the past twelve months. The project is on track in its work to support the planetary community and provide state-of-the-art access to services and facilities for research in planetary science and related fields.

Transnational Access | Virtual Access | Networking Activities | Management

Transnational Access (TA) 

A core part of the work of a research infrastructure is to provide free, cross-border access for researchers to planetary analogue field sites, simulation and analysis facilities. Two calls for applications for Transnational Access (TA) were issued in Year 1 of the project and, despite Covid-19 restrictions, the first visits have started to take place. 

The suite of field sites and laboratories offered by Europlanet 2024 RI now numbers over 40 and has been expanded in Call 2 to include 11 laboratories in South Korea. Call 3 will include further facilities in China and Korea, plus field sites in the Argentinian Andes.

TA visit to Atomki-ICA
TA visit to Atomki-ICA. Credit: D Mifsud

Call 1, which closed on 5 May 2020, received 80 applications, of which 41 were funded. Despite the ongoing travel restrictions due to Covid-19, applications for Call 2, which closed on 6 January 2021, rose by 25% to a total of 101 submissions. The successful Call 2 applications will be announced by the end of March.To date, three TA visits have taken place, including a virtual and an in-person visit to the  Atomki Ice Chamber for Astrophysics/Astrochemistry (ICA) facility in Hungary and a virtual visit to Cold Surfaces Spectroscopy laboratory at IPAG in France. Some of the TA applicants have shared their experiences of submitting a successful TA proposal in a recorded webinar.

TA Development

Six of the TA facilities are being upgraded as part of the Europlanet 2024 RI project and the first of these projects has been completed.

TA 2.11: The Europlanet ICA support team
The Europlanet ICA support team. Credit: Atomki

In early 2020, an existing ultra-high vacuum chamber (provided by Queen’s University Belfast) was shipped to Debrecen in Hungary and installed at the beamline of Atomki’s 2MV Tandetron accelerator. The chamber has been upgraded with ultraviolet/visible and mass spectroscopy extensions that will optimise it for studying the effects of ion irradiation on a variety of different ice surface analogues. These upgrades will support research to improve our understanding of the physical and chemical processes in the Solar System. The augmented facility was operational in time to be included in the first TA call in May 2020, and the first two visits have already taken place. Find out more about the upgrades to the facility.

Virtual Access



SPIDER (Sun-Planet Interactions Digital Environment on Request) is providing access to six services for modelling planetary environments and solar wind interactions through a run on request infrastructure and associated databases. The SPIDER Virtual Access (VA) activity extends the twelve planetary space weather services developed through the previous Europlanet 2020 RI project (2015-2019).

In the first year of Europlanet 2024 RI, the first two SPIDER services have been prototyped and made operational:

  • A Mercury exosphere run on request service
  • A planetary plasma instrument background counts database and service.

Predictions of the solar wind parameters propagated to BepiColombo, Solar Orbiter and the Parker Solar Probe have been added to the Heliopropa service and to the Automated Multi-Dataset Analysis (AMDA) tool.

SPIDER services have also been utilised during the Bepicolombo Venus flyby in October 2020 and will be used again for the first Mercury flyby in 2021.

Simulations of Mercury’s magnetosphere using the operational SPIDER service have been performed, analysed and accepted for peer-reviewed publication in the journal Planetary and Space Science (Cross-comparison of global simulation models applied to Mercury’s dayside magnetosphere, Aizawa et al, 27 January 2021). The SPIDER project and results were presented in a session on planetary space weather at the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) 2020


VESPA logo

VESPA (Virtual European Solar and Planetary Access) is a network of interoperable data services covering all fields of Solar System Sciences. It is a mature project, developed within previous Europlanet projects and already connects 55 services.  

During Year 1 of the Europlanet 2024 RI project, planned workshops to integrate new data services into VESPA have been put on hold due to the pandemic. However, additional services have been published from legacy Horizon 2020 programmes, including Small Bodies Near and Far (SBNAF), and large infrastructures, such as eCallisto, a network of space weather radio observatories.

The Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory (PVOL) service for amateur images has grown by 15% this year and now exceeds 50,000 entries.

The impact of VESPA has been significantly extended through collaborations with data infrastructures and international consortia. Representing VESPA, Europlanet Society has joined the International Planetary Data Alliance (IPDA) alongside national and international space agencies. The VESPA access protocol, EPN-TAP, is in a final validation stage by the IPDA and the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA).  

VESPA Development

During the first year of the project, VESPA has set up various communication tools and started the study of new infrastructure elements. 

Key milestones include:

  • The run-on-demand platform, OPUS, developed through the H2020 ESCAPE programme, has now been installed for VESPA. ESA is currently testing applications for the JUICE mission with Callisto flyby sequences. 
  • Test data services are being installed on the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) through the VESPA-Cloud pilot activity, with support from eduTEAMS/GÉANT and EGI to identify a standard installation procedure on the cloud. 
  • New versions of existing display and analysis tools have been released with extended support for VESPA data services and EPN-TAP.  
  • The SSHADE spectroscopy infrastructure has been enlarged to support multi-angular data and band lists.



GMAP (Geologic MApping of Planetary bodies) integrates partners and outputs from two projects previously funded by the EU through Horizon 2020 (UPWARDS and PLANMAP) to deliver tools and services for geological mapping of any Solar System body. The infrastructure created through GMAP will support future European missions in developing orbital acquisition strategies, rover deployment and traverses, and human exploration programmes. 

In Year 1 of the Europlanet 2024 RI project, information and data access components for GMAP service provision have been set up, for both internal and external user communities, and new collaborations have been established around the world.

GMAP Development (Joint Research Activities)

Geological Mapping Winter School

The first step in building a community of GMAP VA mappers has been through a Planetary Mapping Winter School, co-organised by GMAP and PLANMAP. This Winter School was over-subscribed, and the registration was closed two weeks early after 200 participants signed up from around the world. The Winter School took place from 1-5 February 2021, with 130 participating in the live hands-on programme and a further 70 following activities via the OpenPlanetary portal.  The programme has included lectures and practical experience in creating planetary geological maps, with instructors including high-profile experts from the planetary mapping community across Europe. Promotion of the event was supported through the Europlanet Society and the Europlanet Early Career (EPEC) network. It is anticipated that many of the participants will form part of the community of planetary geological mappers that will support the development of GMAP.

The Winter School has also put in place an overall architecture and dedicated web-domain for future training schools, which will serve as core events to publicise GMAP activities during the years to come. The school will also be a source of recorded material for the future promotion of GMAP activities. 

GMAP development activities have also resulted in Chinese partners successfully obtaining funding through the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). The funding of 3,160,000 RMB (~400,000 Euros) has been awarded to the ‘Key Technologies and Demonstration of Standardised Planetary Geologic Mapping’ project led by Prof Zhizhong Kang of the China University of Geosciences, Beijing (CUGB), which runs from 1st December 2020 until 30th November 2023.

Machine Learning Solutions for Data Analysis and Exploitation in Planetary Sciences

Machine Learning logo

The Machine Learning activity in Europlanet 2024 RI aims to foster wider use of machine learning technologies in planetary research, and to develop open-source machine learning tools for specific science cases.

At the end of the first year of Europlanet 2024 RI, the Machine Learning activity is progressing work on four science cases. These include:

  • The automatic identification and classification of interplanetary coronal mass ejections in in-situ solar wind data, with the aim of improving early detection and ultimately forecasting.
  • The automatic identification of magnetopause/bow shock crossings on Mercury through MESSENGER data, with the aim of improving our understanding of Mercury’s magnetosphere and its dynamics.
  • The development of a generalised machine learning pipeline for the localisation and characterisation of specific geomorphological features (mounds) that are present on the surface of Mars (science case in collaboration with GMAP).
  • The application of a deep learning object detection algorithm to detect pit craters on the surface of Mars from images obtained by the HiRISE instrument onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (science case in collaboration with GMAP).

The first three science cases above will be completed in February and March 2021.  

A Europlanet Machine Learning Portal has been launched and serves as a public access point for the services. A public GitHub has also been set up, where codes and scripts are available for the scientific community. The first results of the science cases were presented at EPSC2020 as well as at the European Space Weather Week.

Networking Activities (NA)

Community Support, Dissemination and Engagement with Stakeholders (NA1)

The Community Support, Dissemination and Engagement with Stakeholders Networking Activity aims to foster co-operation and to extend the user base of Europlanet 2024 RI’s facilities and services. Activities are focused around specific audiences (industry, under-represented states, early careers, the media, policy-makers and educators) and goals (widening participation, global collaboration, expert exchange and outreach).

Highlights from networking activities in Year 1 of Europlanet 2024 RI include:

  • Holding EPSC2020 as a successful virtual meeting with 1168 participants from 67 countries (the largest stand-alone EPSC to date).
  • A high-level Industry and Policy session at EPSC2020 that included participation by three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), a representative of the Commission, and representatives of academia and industry. 
  • A training workshop on how to write a successful proposal for the Europlanet 2024 RI Transnational Access (TA) programme
  • The delivery of the Global Collaboration and Integration Development Strategy 2020-2024.
  • The launch of a pilot TA programme for European and Korean researchers to have reciprocal access each other’s facilities.
  • The launch of the Europlanet Early Careers Training and Education Portal and a pilot Mentoring Programme involving 10 pairs of mentors and mentees.
  • The launch of an internship programme for early career researchers to develop social media and communications skills.
  • The award of funding to four high-quality outreach projects, following the highest number of applications to date for the Europlanet Outreach Funding Scheme.
  • Provision of virtual training to outreach and education providers
  • Completion of seven educational resources related to Mars and Europlanet 2024 RI planetary field analogue sites.
  • Distribution of 11 Planets in a Room (PIAR) spherical projector kits to outreach providers around Europe.
  • The establishment of a not-for-profit German enterprise company with charitable objectives, FTP-Europlanet gUG, as a first step in ensuring long-term sustainability of Europlanet education and outreach activities.

Coordination of Ground-based Observations (NA2)

The Coordination of Ground-based Observations Networking Activity (NA2) is a network of small telescope facilities and supporting the integration of amateur astronomers into planetary sciences. 

Facilities in the NA2 Telescope Network.

The Europlanet Telescope Network, launched in June 2020, currently links 16 facilities located around the globe that range from 0.25 – 2m in diameter. At present, 14 out of 16 of the observatories can provide remote observations, enabling the network to operate despite Covid-19 travel restrictions.

To date, seven applications have been received, with four projects being awarded funding and three projects under consideration. The first observations started in January 2021. All four successfully-funded projects to date are led by female scientists from an under-represented state and cover the following topics:

  • Reducing the selection effects in asteroid spins, shapes, and thermal parameters (application for seven nights at Moletai Astronomical Observatory, Lithuania). Project led by A Marciniak, Poland.
  • Characterisation of V-type asteroids outside the dynamical Vesta family (application for eight nights at Chuguev Observatory, Ukraine). Project led by D Oszkiewicz, Poland.
  • Precise asteroid volumes from Gaia and ground-based observations I (application for six nights at Tartu Observatory, Estonia). Project led by M Polinska, Poland. 
  • Precise asteroid volumes from Gaia and ground-based observations II (application for five nights at Observatorio del Teide, Spain). Project led by M Polinska, Poland.

NA2 is also harnessing the amateur community through observational campaigns on planetary topics. In Year 1 of Europlanet 2024 RI, six observational alerts were issued through PVOL database, and these were followed by over 200 active observers. The observations related to two of the alerts (March 31: Storm Activity on Saturn’s North Polar Region and May 31: Jupiter Storm in the South Temperate Belt) have contributed to two research papers that are being submitted for publication by researchers at UPV/EHU.


Europlanet 2024 RI Kick Off Meeting - Group Photo. Credit: Europlanet 2024 RI./Jane Dempster
Project kick-off meeting. Credit: J Dempster

With over 50 beneficiaries, Europlanet 2024 RI is one of the most complex distributed research infrastructures funded by the European Commission to date. Over 60 members of the Europlanet 2024 RI Consortium gathered in Windsor on 27th and 28th February for the formal launch of the project, just before full lockdowns were implemented in most countries around the world. 

Over Year 1 of the project, the Management Team has administered the project and provided management and financial oversight, ensuring that progress is on track for project deliverables, milestones and budgets. The Europlanet 2024 RI structures and committees (including the Steering Committee, the Project Management Committee and the Project Advisory Board) have been set up and supported in their roles, and reporting procedures and record management systems have been devised and implemented in accordance with the project Grant Agreement and European Union standards.  

The Management Team has communicated news and updates to project beneficiaries and the wider community, and has implemented actions, including the distribution of the grant amongst the beneficiaries. Outcomes of a successful Council meeting, held virtually in October, culminated in the submission of a Grant Amendment to the European Commission to adapt to changes in project objectives in light of the pandemic, as well as adding new beneficiaries and expanding the suite of TA facilities.

Back to Europlanet 2024 RI Main Page

Upgrades to the Atomki-ICA Facility Funded through Europlanet 2024 RI

Europlanet 2024 RI logo

Upgrades to the Atomki-ICA Funded through Europlanet 2024 RI

As well as offering Transnational Access (TA) to laboratory facilities and field sites, the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure (RI) project is funding the upgrade of six facilities to provide new capabilities for planetary research.

The first of these upgrades – the installation of an ion beam facility for irradiating planetary ice analogues at Atomki-ICA in Debrecen – was made fully operational in early 2020. The facility was included in the first two TA Calls and two visits have already taken place.

The upgrades carried out to date include:

  • The accelerator beam line at Atomki Tandetron facility has been developed for depositing close-to-uniform density ion beams onto the target surface, covering the whole infrared-visible area. The beamline now contains the necessary position and size defining elements, scanning electrodes and electronics and a set of Faraday cups.   
  • The Atomki-ICA facility has been equipped with a new quad sample holder, which makes it possible to deposit identical ice-layers non-directionally in one step, and irradiate them with different ion-beams, varying e.g. the energies, current densities, or even the ion species in one cooling/heating cycle. A new temperature sensor has also been added to the control system.
  • The chamber has been equipped with a 2-2000 eV Kimball electron gun, for off-line electron  irradiation  measurements. 
  • The chamber has been equipped with a quadrupole mass spectrometer (QMS-200), for monitoring the background gases, the deposition process, and the sputtered species during irradiation. 
  • All procedures and functions (deposition, ion irradiation, electron irradiation, temperature-programmed desorption) have been tested and proved to be reliable. A substrate preparation method has been developed for avoiding sparks in high current-density measurements.

In 2021, some further technical developments will be undertaken and the full upgrade of Atomki-ICA is expected to be completed by February 2022. A second, complimentary, low-energy ion facility based on an electron cyclotron resonance (ECR) source will be opened to Europlanet 2024 RI TA users in 2022.

More about the Atomki-ICA facility.

Back to TA main page.

Back to Europlanet 2024 RI homepage.