UOA09-10: The Mars Climate Databsase for spaceflight missions
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentPhysics
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Atmospheric Sciences, Geology, Oceanography
Summary of the impact
The Mars Climate Database (MCD), based on research at the University of
Oxford, has been used to inform the entry, descent, landing and operation
of past and future Mars landers. The MCD has been provided to 112 users,
including NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Astrium. The MCD has
directly contributed to the successful landing and operation of NASA's Curiosity
Mars Rover, and ESA have required Astrium, lead contractor for the ExoMars
mission, to use it for the design of components and systems. The impacts
of the MCD include (1) contributions to preventing failures of
billion-dollar space missions and thus financial savings for space
agencies and (2) enabling viability studies of spacecraft designs by
The climate and atmospheric circulation of Mars have many features in
common with the Earth, in terms of the mechanisms driving atmospheric
motions and of the roles played by planetary rotation, small-scale
turbulent mixing and the topography of its underlying surface. Professor
Peter Read (appointed 1991) and his group at the University of Oxford
adapted numerical circulation models, originally developed for the Earth's
atmosphere, for use in studies of the Mars climate system. Initial studies
focused on investigating the role of surface topography on the atmospheric
circulation, including the identification of `Western boundary currents'
(WBCs), which are intensifications of north-south flow adjacent to an
eastward-facing meridional boundary. Although most familiar in the oceans,
where the Gulf Stream is the best known example, WBCs also occur in the
Earth's troposphere in the form of an intense jet stream, such as the one
associated with the Indian monsoon producing a seasonal jet close to the
In 1994, Professor Peter Read's group identified WBCs for the first time
in numerical simulations of the atmosphere of Mars [1,2], and demonstrated
that features of WBCs were consistent with observational evidence. The
intensity of WBCs is dependent on surface drag, and frictional forces were
shown to dominate the WBC's behaviour. Slope winds were found to have a
profound effect on WBC structure, especially where they have a component
parallel to the jet. In these cases, slope winds can cancel out or
reinforce WBCs, depending on their direction. Read determined that
enhanced low-level winds associated with WBCs are an important mechanism
in the generation of the dust storms on Mars and the transport of dust and
water vapour across the planet.
With this new insight, the Oxford team went on to collaborate with
Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique du CNRS (LMD) in Paris to develop
comprehensive climate and circulation models of Mars [3,4] and to publish
a database of statistics of global Mars climate and variations . The
Oxford team primarily worked on the atmospheric dynamics, while LMD worked
primarily on improving the representation of physical processes (e.g.
radiative transfer, boundary layer turbulence) in the combined model. The
development of database tools and the online variability model were led by
The research was carried out in Oxford and was led by Professor Read with
Lewis (postdoctoral researcher 1990 - 2001 then lecturer 2001 - 2005),
Catling (graduate student 1990 - 1994), Joshi (graduate student 1990 -
1994) and Collins (postdoctoral researcher 1993 - 1997).
References to the research
(Oxford authors, * denotes best indicators of quality)
* Joshi MM, Lewis SR, Read PL & Catling
DC, (1994), Western boundary currents in the atmosphere of Mars, Nature,
367, 548-551, doi: 10.1038/367548a0, citations: 17 (WoS).
 Joshi MM, Lewis SR, Read PL & Catling
DC, (1995), Western boundary currents in the Martian atmosphere:
Numerical simulations and observational evidence, Journal of
Geophysical Research (Planets), 100, 5485-5500, doi:
10.1029/94JE02716, citations 37 (WoS).
 Collins M, Lewis SR, Read PL and Hourdin F,
(1996), Baroclinic wave transitions in the Martian atmosphere, Icarus,
120, 344-357, doi: 10.1006/icar.1996.0055, citations: 46 (WoS).
* Forget F, Hourdin F, Fournier R, Hourdin C, Talagrand O, Collins
M, Lewis SR, Read PL and Huot J-P, (1999), Improved
general circulation models of the Martian atmosphere from the surface to
above 80 km, Journal of Geophysical Research (Planets), 104 (E10),
24155-24176, doi: 10.1029/1999JE001025, citations: 295 (WoS). This
paper describes the resulting Mars Climate model and some scientific
* Lewis SR, Collins M, Read PL, Forget F,
Hourdin F, Fournier R, Hourdin C, Talagrand O and Huot J-P, (1999), A
climate database for Mars, Journal of Geophysical Research (Planets),
104 (E10), 24177-24194, doi: 10.1029/1999JE001024, citations: 161 (WoS).
Details of the impact
Mars missions cost in excess of $1bn and historically many have failed.
An important variable in the success of entry, descent, landing and
operation is the climate on Mars and especially the behaviour of dust,
which varies widely.
The Mars Climate Database (MCD) described in  was made available for
wider use in December 2006. The MCD is freely available on the internet
through an online version that is intended for light use only. Access to
the full database and dedicated software can be requested by advanced
users, and is also free of charge. Since 2008, the full database has been
provided to 112 users including space agencies NASA and ESA, and
contractors Astrium and Thales Alenia Space.
The MCD has been used to produce simulations of spacecraft flight through
the Mars atmosphere as well as simulations for surface operations. The MCD
can produce profiles of atmospheric density versus height, which is key
for producing simulations of flight. It can also produce profiles of the
surface temperature and surface pressure over the course of a day and over
the seasonal cycle. Dust scenarios are included, providing the ability to
account for different dust concentrations and dust storms.
Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity Mars
Rover (launched 2011)
In 2011, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that
successfully landed the Curiosity Mars Rover on Mars in 2012. The
MSL project cost an estimated $2.5bn and collected information about the
habitability, climate and geology of Mars. The MCD contributed to the
success of the Curiosity Mars Rover by narrowing the options for
landing sites without the need for expensive and time-consuming customised
models. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory used MCD extensively in the early
design phase to produce simulations of the MSL's flight through the Mars
atmosphere. They also used the MCD to model the surface conditions, and
inform the landing site location for Curiosity.
NASA say that "the MCD plays a unique role in providing an easily
accessible database, and very importantly one that is constructed and
validated by leading Mars atmospheric scientists. This combination
allows the engineering teams (with scientific guidance) to quickly
narrow the design space. It allows the science team to assess a number
of different landing site latitude[s] and elevations, with an idea of
the potential consequences to mission operations."
At the final stages of design, NASA used customised modelling studies but
they say that "such studies are expensive and time consuming, and
would not be possible during the design phase when many options are
being explored." [A]
ExoMars (currently in development, due for launch 2015)
ExoMars is a Mars mission that will search for biosignatures of Martian
life, past and present. The project, expected to cost a total of $1.3bn,
is led by the European Space Agency (ESA), who have used the MCD directly
to analyse different atmospheric and dust scenarios to confirm mission
ESA required Astrium, the lead contractor on ExoMars, to use the MCD.
Astrium used it to develop their aerobraking, a spaceflight manoeuvre that
results in drag to slow a vehicle by flying it through the atmosphere to
save fuel. At ESA's direct request, Astrium have integrated the MCD with
an existing aerobraking simulator enabling them to produce realistic
values for density, dynamic pressure and heat flux. Astrium say that "this
allowed tuning [of] the design and demonstrating the viability of
onboard algorithms aimed at improving the autonomy level of
Thales Alenia Space is also a contractor for the ExoMars project and has
used the MCD extensively for precision landing studies.
Sources to corroborate the impact
[A] Letter from Senior Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (held
on file) confirming their use of MCD and how it has contributed to the
success of the Curiosity Mars Rover.
[B] Letter from Advanced Studies Engineer at Astrium (held on file)
confirming their use of MCD, the requirement from ESA to use MCD and its
impact on their aerobraking design.