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Mars Express, one of the longest-running planetary probes ever made, was only intended to last for about two Earth years, but it's still going at 17! And it's taught us an unbelievable amount, including everything from studying its geology and atmosphere to searching for signs of life!

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[♪ INTRO].

On November 16, 1996, Russia launched one of the most ambitious Mars missions ever: Mars 96. This mission would have brought five probes to the Red Planet.

But when it reached space, its rockets fired in the wrong direction, and it landed somewhere in the South Pacific. Even twenty three years later, no one's positive what happened, or, even, exactly where it landed. Except...not on Mars.

Still, out of its ashes rose something amazing: Mars Express, one of the longest-running planetary probes ever made. It arrived in 2003 and almost immediately found water at Mars's frozen South Pole. And with each measurement, it's continued to reveal a dynamic planet, not the old, dead rock that many scientists imagined.

Not bad for a mission that wasn't supposed to exist. Mars Express was led by the European Space Agency, and it got its name from a lightning-quick development. Planetary missions can take a decade or more to design, but the ESA developed Mars Express in about half that time.

To speed things up, some instruments they had designed for Mars 96 were rebuilt for Express, and the project also kept costs down by sharing some development time with other probes. Specifically, its frame, power, and one of its instruments were also designed for the Rosetta mission to a comet that was being made at the same time. The project wasn't as complicated as Mars 96 was, either:.

It was just a lander and a satellite with seven instruments, versus the old mission and its more than 20. Express's main goal was to help us understand Mars's past and present, which included everything from studying its geology and atmosphere to searching for signs of life. And it was intended to last for a single Martian year, or about two Earth years.

Thankfully, everything worked with the launch this time! Mars Express took off in June 2003, and arrived at its destination a few months later. But it wasn't all smooth sailing.

As it arrived at Mars, the spacecraft released its lander, which was supposed to look for evidence of life in the soil. But that did not happen. From what we can tell, something broke, might have been the air bag, all we know is we lost contact with the lander after it reached the surface.

I mean, in its defense… it is so hard to land something successfully on Mars. So that left the satellite to carry out its mission alone. And it was supposed to end in 2005, but since then it's been extended seven times.

So, what's it been doin' up there? Well, kinda everything. For one, its camera takes pictures that can be stitched into a 3D model, giving us a map of the Martian surface with a level of detail and depth that we've never had before.

Those maps give us a taste of what it might be like to walk around on Mars. And that's very cool, but those cameras have also had clear scientific results. Like, they've repeatedly shown evidence of glaciers moving around the Martian surface over the last few hundred million years; signs that ice ages happened much more recently than many scientists thought.

Other instruments study the atmosphere, and in 2004, they detected some of the first signs of methane on Mars. Most of Earth's methane comes from life, active volcanoes, and chemical reactions between seawater and rocks; things we have never seen evidence of on modern Mars. But it's not like Mars's methane has been around for eons, either.

Methane breaks down over time in Mars's atmosphere, so something has to be generating new stuff. And now, we just have to figure out what. Meanwhile, in 2019, Mars Express also found evidence of an ancient, underground network of lake beds that exchanged water with Mars's ocean three or four billion years ago.

As the ocean dried up, these underground lakes might have been some of the last big pockets of liquid water on the planet. Generally, that can teach us about Mars's past. But also, these could be good places for future rovers to visit, because maybe those lakes had the ingredients to support life.

So Express has been busy! But there's more! It's spotted previously unseen clouds of carbon dioxide and ever-changing layers of dry ice and water ice on the poles.

It's also found Martian auroras, a never-before-seen layer of the atmosphere made by tiny, disintegrating meteorites; there's a lot. Overall, Express has shown us that Mars changes way more often and more dramatically than we'd thought. And as a bonus, it's even made discoveries about Mars's moons!

In 2010, Mars's moon Phobos passed near the satellite, and its gravity changed the spacecraft's speed ever so slightly and caused a tiny variation in Express's tracking signal. Just based on that, scientists could measure the moon's mass 100 times more accurately than ever before. And on other close passes, Mars Express has mapped Phobos's surface and identified some of the minerals there, just for good measure.

Since 2003, Mars Express has taught us an unbelievable amount. And it's also inspired other low budget probes, like Venus Express. But all good things must come to an end eventually, we're just not entirely sure when yet.

The mission's current extension goes until the end of 2020. But it's still working well and we've still been learning from it, so the team is hoping for an eighth extension through 2022, maybe even more beyond that. So, yeah, Mars Express might only exist because.

Mars 96 turned around the wrong way and crashed into earth, and maybe half of the mission did crash into Mars, but it still ranks as one of the most successful probes to ever leave Earth. And if you want to celebrate Mars Express with us, we've got good news for you:. We made a Mars Express pin!

Every month, we release a new pin featuring a spacecraft that launched or landed in that month. And since Mars Express launched in June, we're featuring it this month! If you want to celebrate everything the mission has accomplished or just own a piece of amazing space merch, you can get June's pin at or in the merch shelf below this video.

But it will only be available for the month of June and then never again, so you've only got a couple of weeks to get it. [♪ OUTRO].