Witness space history by tuning into the first almost-live stream from Mars

Live from the Red Planet, it’s Mars Express’ 20th birthday!
A graphic rendering of the ESA's Mars Express orbiter. Mars Express lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a Soyuz–Fregat rocket on June 2, 2003. It entered orbit around Mars on December 25, 2003 and reached its operational orbit in January 2004. The initial mission duration was one Martian year (687 Earth days), completed in September 2005.

Mars Express lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a Soyuz–Fregat rocket on June 2, 2003. It entered orbit around Mars on December 25, 2003 and reached its operational orbit in January 2004. The initial mission duration was one Martian year (687 Earth days), completed in September 2005. ESA/Alex Lutkus

Today, the European Space Agency (ESA) will livestream imagery from its Mars Express orbiter in near-real time. The live stream is scheduled to begin on June 2 at 12:00 PM EDT. You can watch the hour-long live stream on the ESA’s YouTube channel

Mars Express has been orbiting Mars for the past 20 years, sending back data on the vast landscape of the Red Planet along the way. Slight technical delays have hampered these views, and sometimes the images take hours and even days to transmit to Earth. 

[Related: The Mars Express just got up close and personal with Phobos.]

That changes with today’s historic livestream. If all goes according to plan, today’s images will get to Earth about 18 minutes after they are taken. It will take 17 minutes for light to travel from Mars to Earth and then about one minute to pass through the servers and wires on the ground.

According to the ESA, “This will be the closest you can get to a live view from the Red Planet.”

New images will be seen roughly every 50 seconds as they are beamed down directly from the orbiter’s Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC).

On June 2, 2003, Mars Express launched with a lander called Beagle 2. The pair arrived in orbit on December 25, 2003, and Beagle 2 touched ground the same day. However, Beagle 2 never made contact with Earth because at least one of its four solar panels failed to deploy properly, thus blacking the landers communications antenna. 

Mars Express still moved on as planned and began to study our celestial neighbor with seven different instruments. In two decades, the orbiter has already accomplished a great deal, including detecting methane in the Martian atmosphere, spotting a possible subsurface lake near the Red Planet’s south pole, and mapping the composition of ice near both of the planet’s poles. 

The VMC, or Mars Webcam, was not initially planned to break so many records. Its primary job was just to monitor the separation of the Beagle 2 lander from the Mars Express spacecraft. After completing that first mission, the camera was turned off. 

In 2007, the VMC was turned back on and used for science and educational outreach activities. It even took advantage of the social media boom of the aughts and got its own Flickr page and a Twitter account that has now moved to Mastodon. Scientists realized a little later that these images could be used for “proper” science.

[Related: The ill-fated Beagle 2 may have landed on Mars after all.]

“We developed new, more sophisticated methods of operations and image processing, to get better results from the camera, turning it into Mars Express’s 8th science instrument,” VMC team member Jorge Hernández Bernal said in a statement. “From these images, we discovered a great deal, including the evolution of a rare elongated cloud formation hovering above one of Mars’ most famous volcanoes – the 20 km-high [12 miles] Arsia Mons.”

To celebrate Mars Express’ 20th birthday, multiple ESA teams have spent months developing the tools that will allow for higher-quality, science-processed images to be streamed live for a full hour back on Earth. 

“This is an old camera, originally planned for engineering purposes, at a distance of almost three million kilometers [18 million miles] from Earth—this hasn’t been tried before and to be honest, we’re not 100 percent certain it’ll work,” Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESA’s mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany James Godfrey said in a statement. “But I’m pretty optimistic. Normally, we see images from Mars and know that they were taken days before. I’m excited to see Mars as it is now – as close to a martian ‘now’ as we can possibly get!’