Past Missions

We have been involved in planetary science missions since the 1980s.

Mars Express is the first "flexible" mission from the European Space Agency, comprising the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. Mars Express launched on 2 June 2003 at 18:45 BST on a Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle and arrived in orbit around Mars on 25 December 2003. Two successful in-flight checkouts of Beagle 2 were carried out when Mars Express and Beagle 2 arrived in orbit around Mars, one on 15 July 2003 and another on 1 September 2003. The probe was successfully released from Mars Express on 19 December 2003, to land in Isidis Planitia on 25 December but no contact was received from the probe. The mission was declared lost on 11 February 2004, and its fate was unknown.

Beagle-2 on Mars

However, in January 2015, it was announced that Beagle-2 had been found in images obtained by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Beagle-2 had landed safely, but it appears that not all its solar panels had been deployed. As a result, the radio antenna had not been exposed, thus blocking communications.

More details on the discovery of Beagle-2 are available here.

Science goals

The scientific objectives of the lander were to:

  • Search for criteria relating to past life on Mars.
  • Measure the detailed atmospheric composition to establish the geological history of the planet and to document the processes involved in seasonal climatic changes or diurnal cycling.
  • Investigate the oxidative state of the martian surface, rock interiors and beneath boulders.
  • Examine the geological nature of the rocks, their chemistry, mineralogy, petrology and age.
  • Characterise the geomorphology of the landing site.
  • Appraise the environmental conditions including temperature, pressure, wind speed, UV flux, oxidation potential, dust environment etc.


  • Payload Adjustable Workbench (PAW): consisting of a pair of stereo cameras, a microscope, spectrometers, a spotlamp and a drill for collecting samples.
  • Gas Analysis Package (GAP).
  • Planetary Undersurface Tool (PLUTO).

Further information

Beagle 2 website

Mars Express homepage at ESA

 Giotto was the European Space Agency's first interplanetary mission, and was part of the international armada of spacecraft which made flybys of Comet P/Halley in 1986. Following its encounter with Halley, the spacecraft was put into hibernation. It was reawoken to make a close approach of Earth in 1990, which enabled it to make a flyby of Comet Grigg-Skjellerup in July 1992.

The mission

Giotto was approved by ESA in 1980 and was launched on an Ariane 1 launch vehicle on 2 July 1985 from Kourou. Giotto successfully made its closest approach of 596 km to Halley on 14 March 1986. The spacecraft survived despite being hit by small particles. One impact destabilised the spacecraft (which was corrected by the spacecraft itself) and another destroyed the Halley Multicolour Camera, but thankfully the camera failed only after taking spectacular images of the nucleus of the comet. Giotto was set on a trajectory back to Earth and the spacecraft was put into hibernation. The spacecraft was reawoken for the Earth swingby and used a slingshot to send it onto comet Comet Grigg-Skjellerup. It made its closest approach of 200 km to Grigg-Skjellerup on 10 July 1992. Giotto was then switched off again.


The above image is a representation of Giotto passing through the Comet Grigg-Skjellerup. Solar wind vectors as measured by the JPA instrument are overlaid, projected onto the sky plane. Giotto was moving from upper-left to lower-right. The along-track distance between the solar wind vectors is 1790km. The image was obtained at the Anglo-Australian Telescope by Prof. Keith Mason approximately seven hours before the encounter took place.

The Johnstone Plasma Analyser

The Johnstone Plasma Analyser (JPA) aboard the Giotto spacecraft consisted of an Implanted Ion Sensor (IIS), Fast Ion Sensor (FIS) and Common Digital Processing Unit (DPU). They were designed to cover the solar wind and cometary ions during the Halley encounter. The FIS was damaged during that encounter, and was thus not operating when the spacecraft flew by Grigg-Skjellerup. The instrument development was headed by the Space Plasma Physics Group of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Collaborators on the project were from The Max-Planck-Institut fuer Aeronomie (Germany), Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario (Italy), Kiruna Geophysical Institute (Sweden), Southwest Research Intitute (USA) and the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory (UK).

The Fast Ion Sensor provided 3D positive ion distribution every 4 seconds in the energy range 10eV to 20 keV. This instrument was damaged during the Halley flyby, and was not operational during the Grigg-Skjellerup encounter.

The Implanted Ion Sensor covered cometary pickup ions in 32 energy levels from 86 eV to 86 keV, with a time resolution of 128 seconds (at Grigg-Skjellerup this provided a 1790km along-track resolution). The instrument had a very high sensitivity, to detect the low fluxes of cometary ions.

As its name suggests, the IIS is an ion spectrometer whose primary function was to investigate cometary ions implanted in the solar wind flow. Five sensors in the IIS covered the angular range of 15degrees to 165degrees in five equally-spaced 10degree sectors in a plane including the spacecraft spin axis. As the spacecraft rotated, three-dimensional coverage was provided of the ion populations. Each of the five sensors consisted of a spherical-section electrostatic segment analyser (ESA), and a time-of-flight (TOF) analyser.

The mean radius of the ESA sectors is 50mm, their plate spacing is 3mm, and the energy bandwidth deltaE/E = 10%. The outer plate was held at 0V, and up to -11kV could be applied to the inner plate. Positive ions were selected in the ESA according to their E/q. Following selection, the ions were accelerated by 10kV to pass through a thin carbon foil at the entrance of the TOF analyser. While passing through the foil, a small amount of energy was tranferred to secondary electrons that were deflected from the foil onto an MCP to record the `start' signal. The `stop' detector was an aluminium absorber which released secondary electrons from its surface layer. The error in flight-path length caused by coulomb angular scattering of the ions with atoms in the `start' foil was limited to ~5% by using a spherical concave shape for the `stop' detector.

The response of the incident ions to a given accelerating potential depends on q/mass and therefore the selected E/q and the measured time of flight (after acceleration) over a known path length are combined to give m/q. Counts are sorted into 5 mass bins using an on-board look-up table. Further pulses cannot be processed during the 25 microseconds required to process the signals for each event. The maximum time interval allowed between start and stop signals in 80ns (after which the event is discounted). Using this coincidence technique, a high rejection of background signals was given, allowing the relibale measurement of low densities.

During each spacecraft spin, an entire angular distribution was obtained by the instrument in one of the 32 logarithmically-spaced energy levels, from 86 eV/q to 86 keV/q. As the spacecraft rotated every 8 seconds, the entire energy range was covered by the IIS in 128 seconds.

For more detailed descriptions, see :
The Giotto three-dimensional positive ion analyser, A.D.Johnstone, J.A.Bowles, A.J.Coates, A.J.Coker, S.J.Kellock, J.Raymont, B.Wilken, W.Studemann, W.Weiss, R Cerulli Irelli, V.Formisano, E.de Giorgi, P.Perani, M. de Bernardi, H.Borg, S.Olsen, J.D.Winningham and D.A.Bryant , ESA SP-1077, 15-32, 1985.

The Giotto three-dimensional positive ion analyser, A.D.Johnstone, A.J.Coates, B.Wilken, W.Studemann, W.Weiss, R Cerulli Irelli, V.Formisano, H.Borg, S.Olsen, J.D.Winningham,D.A.Bryant and S.J.Kellock, J. Phys. E: Sci. Instrum., 20, pp.795 - 805, 1987.

Further information

Giotto pages at ESA

Venus Express is ESA's first mission to Earth's closest planetary neighbour Venus. It came about as a result of an ESA call asking for ideas for reuse of the Mars Express platform. Many of the instruments on Venus Express were flight spares from Mars Express and Rosetta and could be used to achieve Venus Express's scientific objectives.

Venus Express. Credit: ESA/AOES/MediaLab

Science objectives

  • What are the global characteristics of the atmosphere?
  • How does it circulate?
  • How does the composition of the atmosphere change with depth?
  • How does the atmosphere interact with the surface?
  • How does the upper atmosphere interact with the solar wind?

The spacecraft

The spacecraft platform is a box-shaped structure similar to Rosetta and Mars Express measuring 1.7 x 1.7 x 1.4 m. Solar arrays are 5.7 m2 and provide 1100 W of electrical power in orbit around Venus. The spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 9 November 2005 on a Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle. Venus Express entered orbit around Uranus on 11 April 2006.


  • Analyser of Space Plasmas and Energetic Atoms (ASPERA-4).
  • Magnetometer (MAG).
  • Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS).
  • Spectroscopy for Investigation of Characteristics of the Atmosphere of Venus (SPICAV).
  • Venus Radio Science (VeRa).
  • Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS).
  • Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC).

Further information

Venus Express at ESA

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