Two decades ago, on 2 June 2003, European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter launched and began its long journey to Mars– Europe’s first ever mission to the Red Planet. Mars Express has now been in space for two decades with Norwegian technology onboard, despite a planned initial lifetime of just 687 Earth days.

Photo: Artist's impression of Mars Express. Credit: Alex Lutkus / ESA

The spacecraft aimed to enter orbit around Mars and use its vantage point to study the martian atmosphere and climate, unravel the planet’s structure, mineralogy and geology, and search for traces of water. The orbiter is imaging Mars’ surface, mapping its minerals, identifying the composition and circulation of its tenuous atmosphere, probing beneath its crust, and exploring how various phenomena interact in the martian environment.

The mission was originally designed to last 687 Earth days, or 1 Mars year, but has been granted repeated extensions to continue its operations at Mars for 10.3 Mars years and has been extended until at least the end of 2026. Last year, the MarsExpress celebrated 10 martian years in orbit.Photo: This image shows the remains of an ancient delta in Jezero Crater, which NASA's Perseverance Mars rover will explore for signs of fossilized microbial life. The image was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA's Mars Express orbiter.
Credit: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Photo: Artist's impression of Mars Express. The background is based on an actual image of Mars taken by the spacecraft's high resolution stereo camera.

Credit: Spacecraft image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Mars: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Norwegian technology onboard
Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace is proud to contribute to this valuable mission. To power the MarsExpress, Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace delivered the Solar Array Drive Mechanism (SADM) angling the orbiter’s two solar panels towards the sun.

Our Space & Surveillance division designed, assembled and qualified the two SADM which continuously adjust the angles of the solar panels to catch the maximum power from the sun during the flight to Mars and while orbiting the planet.

The SADM is developed to handle deep space interplanetary cruise with long hibernation phase as well as planetary orbit operation. It consists of the mechanism with structural interfaces, drive line and position sensor, and the Twist Capsule for rotary power and signal transfer.

Photo: Stereo-1 channel image of the moon Phobos. Phobos is the larger of Mars' two moons and is 27 by 22 by 18 kilometers in diameter. It orbits Mars three times a day, and is so close to the planet's surface that in some locations on Mars it cannot always be seen.

Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The red planet in three dimensions

The MarsExpress has achieved its mission with more than 1.1 billion km travelled and over 24 000 Mars orbits, and it has revealed an incredible wealth of knowledge about Mars in its time, making it one of the most successful missions ever sent to the Red Planet.

Since beginning science operations 20 years ago, the orbiter has provided incredible views of the red planet in three dimensions. It has provided the most complete map of the chemical composition of the atmosphere, studied Mars’s innermost moon Phobos in unprecedented detail, and traced the history of water across the globe, demonstrating that Mars once harboured environmental conditions that may have been suitable for life.

Photo: New results from the MARSIS radar on Mars Express give strong evidence for a former ocean of Mars. The radar detected sediments reminiscent of an ocean floor inside previously identified, ancient shorelines on the red planet. The ocean would have covered the northern plains billions of years ago. Credit: ESA, C. Carreau

Alongside its focus on Mars’ science, Mars Express has supported many other missions as they either hunt for a suitable landing site, travel to the planet, communicate with ground stations back on Earth, or touch down on the martian surface.