Europe Extends Missions to Mars, Venus and Earth
The Mars Express spacecraft (shown here in an artist's impression) of ESA confirmed the presence of methane on Mars.
Credit: ESA - D. Ducros.

The European Space Agency (ESA) on Tuesday announced mission extensions for three spacecraft currently exploring Mars, Venus and the Earth?s magnet field.

The extensions will allow Europe?s current Mars Express and Venus Express probes to continue their missions at their respective planets through Dec. 31, while ESA?s Cluster spacecraft will continue to do the same at Earth.

The announcement marks the third extension for Mars Express, which launched toward the red planet in 2003 and ended its initial mission in October 2005. The boxy Mars Express is Europe?s first mission to Mars and carries seven instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar that has probed beneath the Martian surface to discover pockets of buried water-ice.

Mars Express was the first spacecraft to detect the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere directly from orbit, and has beamed home stunning three-dimensional views of the planet?s surface, as well as mineralogical evidence for the presence of liquid water in the planet?s history. The spacecraft has also taken close looks at Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars.

Launched in November 2005, ESA?s Venus Express has been circling the cloud-covered planet Venus since it arrived in orbit around the planet in April 2006.

The spacecraft found definitive proof of lightning in the Venusian atmosphere, which it has been mapping with unprecedented detail, and tracked water molecules escaping into space from the planet. Venus Express has also used infrared instruments to study the planet?s cloud-covered surface and discovered an odd double vortex churning above the Venusian south pole.

The Venus Express mission was extended once before, to May 2009, and will now get an extra seven months to study the second planet from the sun. ESA officials said the extra time will allow scientists to continue their hunt for active volcanoes on Venus and better understand the planet?s harsh climate.

Cluster, the third mission extended by ESA, is actually a constellation of four spacecraft launched in 2000 to study the Earth?s protective magnetic field. The mission generated the first three-dimensional views of the magnetic field lines reconnecting in space, a phenomenon that releases immense amounts of energy.

The Cluster mission was extended twice before, most recently through June 2009. The new extension will allow scientists to use the spacecraft constellation to scan the auroral regions above Earth?s poles and take an in-depth look at the inner region of the planet?s magnetic field, ESA officials said.