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For three days the camera onboard the Mars Express mission can be used by the public

on 20 March 2015

The Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) is inviting schools, astronomy clubs, science centres and other youth-engaged Romanian organisations to enroll in the VMC campaign, organised by the European Space Agency (ESA). For three days, the VMC camera (Visual Monitoring Camera) onboard Mars Express mission will make observations based on the requests received from the public. Those interested can submit their proposals online until 27 March at 13:00 GMT. The best of them will be selected by ESA, and observations will be made between 25-27 May.

The explanation is that in May Mars will be in solar conjunction, meaning that line-of-sight radio signals between Earth and Mars Express will be disrupted by the Sun. As a result, the spacecraft's professional scientific payload will be switched off, which offers a first-ever, three-day period when the VMC camera can be freely pointed at almost any target from almost any point in the 300x10 000 km orbit.

The most promising proposals will be selected, one slot per group, corresponding to the eight (or so) observation slots available (the number varies depending on the targets proposed) and the VMC Imaging Campaign will be scheduled into an observation campaign that will run from 25–27 May.

Proposals must include the desired observation target, a brief note about why it's interesting and a description of the intended project that will fully exploit the images. Proposals with strong educational value and representing a cohesive team effort will have the best chances of being accepted.

The VMC image sets will be downloaded to Earth by 28 May, and then delivered to participating groups electronically.
On 19 March, the Mars Express mission team provided a tutorial via an #ESAHangout in Google+ and YouTube on the VMC camera and how its images are planned and acquired. The hangout is available here.

The terms and conditions are available here.

Up to eight proposals will be selected from all valid submissions received, and these will be announced on 30 March.

The groups that are awarded a slot must will use 'their' image set in a scientific or artistic project that makes full, imaginative use of the visual information they contain. The projects must be submitted to the European Space Agency within the end of the current academic year or 31 July, whichever comes first.

Possible targets

In principle, almost any large feature on the martian surface can be imaged. However, during the limited three-day imaging campaign, the Mars Express orbits may not offer the best views of all possible targets.

A more-detailed description of the Mars Express orbits, ranges of visibilities and timings/altitudes for imaging slots, together with examples of potential targets can be found on the Mars Express blog.

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Mars Webcam images. Credit: ESA/Bill Dunford CC BY-NC 3.0

About VMC

VMC – the 'Mars Webcam' – is a simple, low-resolution device that was originally intended only to provide visual confirmation of Beagle lander separation. Since 2007, it has provided unique images of Mars, including crescent views of the planet not obtainable from Earth, which are routinely shared via a dedicated blog and on Flickr.

While it's not a scientific instrument as such, and despite the low resolution, the camera delivers good quality pictures of intriguing martian features, including cloud and atmospheric activity and surface features like Olympus Mons (a very large volcano) and the Tharsis Montes.

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The surface on Mars seen by VMC. Image credit: ESA/Mars Express VMC CC BY-SA IGO 3.0