Space Research & Planetary Sciences Division Web Site

Projects and Hardware

We are developing spacecraft instruments allowing remote-sensing of planetary surfaces. We particularly focus on the acquisition of topographic data via laser altimeters and stereo cameras. Our current projects in development are the BepiColombo laser altimeter (BELA) for Mercury, the stereo camera of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (CaSSIS) and the rangefinder for the Ganymede Laser Altimeter (GALA) for ESA’s JUICE mission. Moreover, we have been involved in several previous hardware projects in the field of remote-sensing space instruments (HiRISE, OSIRIS, DISR, HMC, etc.). You can find information on most of these in the text below.


  • Nicolas Thomas with BELA in the TV chamber at the Physics Institute in Bern.


BELA: the BepiColombo laser altimeter

BELA is the laser altimeter of the future BepiColombo ESA’s mission to Mercury, scheduled to launch in august 2015. Once in Mercury orbit, it will map the surface shape and topography of the planet. Our group is co-PI an instrument hardware lead for the BELA laser altimeter.

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CaSSIS: the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System

We have proposed, and we are currently building, the stereo camera for the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to be launched in 2016 by ESA. CaSSIS is a high-resolution camera system capable of acquiring colour stereo images of surface features possibly associated with trace gas sources and sinks in order to better understand the range of processes that might be related to trace gas emission on Mars.

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HiRISE imaging experiment

Since 1999, we are the only original European Co-Is on the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) – the high resolution imaging system on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), launched in 2005. The HiRISE experiment has been returning ultra-high resolution colour images of the surface of Mars since 2006. The experiment can also generate stereo images by using fairly complex (although now routine) spacecraft manoeuvres. Digital Terrain Models (DTM) are generated regularly by the team and we use these for specific scientific applications (see LAPIS section).

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  • HiRISE image taken of the martian moon Deimos.



  • HiRISE image taken of the martian moon Phobos.



  • OSIRIS image of asteroid Lutetia during the flyby by the european space probe Rosetta.


OSIRIS imaging system

OSIRIS is the main imaging system on Rosetta. We are involved in the science team of this camera, and we will focus our research on the dust and gas outflow from the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. We have already produced some data from previous observations performed by OSIRIS during flybys of Steins, Lutetia, etc.

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GALA: the Ganymede Laser Altimeter

JUICE (for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) is the next ESA large mission to be launched in 2022. JUICE will orbit Ganymede and perform a detailed investigation of this large Jovian moon. The Ganymede Laser Altimeter (GALA) on board JUICE will perform topographic mapping and contribute to large scale geodesy experiment. GALA will use a similar system than that of BELA and our group has been invited to provide the rangefinder system with the associated software.



  • Artist view of JUICE (for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer)



  • Picture of Io taken by Galileo. Can IVO do better?


IVO: Io Volcano Observer

Io is one of the most fascinating objects in the Solar System. Tidal flexing resulting from the Laplace orbital resonance (between Io, Europa, and Ganymede) drives active volcanism at a remarkable level, producing hundreds of km high volcanic plumes and a very dynamic surface composed of SO2 ice and sulfur-compounds. The Io Volcano Observer (IVO) is a Discovery-class mission proposal which will be proposed for the next selection round for NASA Discovery missions.

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Halley Multicolour Camera on Giotto

Just after midnight on March 14th, 1986, the Giotto spacecraft made its closest approach (596 km) to the nucleus of the comet 1P/Halley. The Vega and Giotto spacecraft all carried sophisticated remote sensing experiments for determination of nucleus properties.

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  • Image of comet 1P/Halley taken by the Halley Multicolour Camera on the Giotto space probe.


Imager for Mars Pathfinder

On 4 July 1997, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars. The spacecraft carried an imaging system, the Imager for Mars Pathfinder. Our group was involved in studying effects of the dusty atmosphere on the photometry of the surface.

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Titan, Huygens and DISR

The NASA's Cassini spacecraft was launched on 15 October 1997, carrying the ESA's Huygens probe to Titan. After being released by the Cassini spacecraft, the Huygens probe entered the atmosphere of Titan on 14 January 2005, and made a series of measurements during its descent through the atmosphere. The mission was a remarkable success, returning the first images from the surface of Titan. Our group was involved in the DISR experiment - the main imaging system.

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Beagle 2 - Microscope

The Beagle 2 Microscope was a compact and light - yet very powerful - optical microscope onboard the lander Beagle 2 which was carried on ESA's MarsExpress mission. We led the microscope development.

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Space Research & Planetary Sciences Division Web Site