Mars exploration began in the 1960s, and over forty spacecraft have attempted to reach the red planet to date, with varying degrees of success. ESA’s Mars Express orbiter was launched in 2003 and today continues to yield world-class scientific data. Its instruments provide us with spectacular three-dimensional colour views of the martian surface and its environment, including details of water-ice at the poles, volcanic features and landforms created by water.
Despite the planet’s current aridity, water has been a major focus of the investigations by Mars Express. One instrument has discovered hydrated minerals that form only in the presence of liquid water, providing confirmation that Mars was once much wetter than it is today, and demonstrating that conditions may, at least for a brief period, have been favourable for life to evolve.
An unsolved mystery raised by the mission is the intriguing detection of methane, which on Earth indicates the presence of active volcanoes or biochemical processes.
Mars Express is playing a key role in the international effort to unravel the mysteries of Mars and ExoMars will shift the focus from remote observations to in-situ exploration of the planet’s surface and subsurface.