NASA launches new chapter in Mars exploration

By | Published: August 5, 2005

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June 21, 2005

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WAUKESHA, WI &#151 With two rovers currently scouring the martian surface, and three orbiters peering at the Red Planet from above, you might think astronomers have Mars well covered. Scientists would disagree, however. That’s why NASA will launch a next-generation spacecraft, called Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), toward the Red Planet this month. MRO’s 3-week-long launch window begins August 10, 2005, at 7:53:58 a.m. EST.

During its planned 2-year mission, MRO will return more data to Earth than all previous Mars missions combined. The spacecraft will examine Mars from the top of the planet’s atmosphere to beneath its surface &#151 and everything in between. Scientists will use MRO to study the history and distribution of water on Mars, examine potential landing sites for future missions, and provide a high-data-rate communications relay for those missions.

MRO carries three cameras. The biggest ranks as the most powerful camera ever sent to another world. From the spacecraft’s low-altitude orbit, this camera will see surface features as small as a kitchen table. The second camera will cover wider swaths at somewhat lower resolution; this will expand the areas on Mars seen in good detail by a factor of 10. The third camera will produce global maps of martian weather.

“Higher resolution is a major driver for this mission,” says project scientist Richard Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Every time we look with increased resolution, Mars has said, ‘Here’s something you didn’t expect. You don’t understand me yet.’ We’re sure to find surprises.”

In addition to the cameras, MRO carries three other science instruments. A spectrometer will identify minerals formed in water in patches as small as a baseball infield; a ground-penetrating radar will peer beneath the surface of layers of rock, ice, and, perhaps, water; and a radiometer will monitor dust, water vapor, and temperatures in the martian atmosphere.

After its August launch, MRO will cruise to Mars during the next 7 months, arriving at the planet in March 2006. It then will fire its main engines, slowing the spacecraft enough for Mars’ gravity to capture it. For the next 6 months, MRO will dip into the planet’s atmosphere once each orbit. This “aerobraking” technique will slow the spacecraft further and put it into a nearly circular orbit about 190 miles above the surface.

MRO’s science mission gets underway in November 2006 and will continue for 2 Earth years (1 full Mars year). During each 112-minute-long orbit, the spacecraft will gather huge amounts of data and transmit them to Earth at a rate 10 times that of any previous Mars mission. With this abundant new knowledge, scientists anticipate rewriting planetary-science textbooks. The data will give earthbound enthusiasts an unprecedented look at this familiar yet still-perplexing world.

Astronomy and will provide extensive coverage of MRO’s mission.

Fast facts about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

  • Launch window &#151 August 10 through August 31
  • Launch vehicle &#151 an Atlas V rocket, the first ever used for an interplanetary mission
  • Height &#151 21 feet, topped by a 33-foot-diameter radio dish
  • Width &#151 45 feet from the tip of one solar panel to the tip of the other
  • Weight &#151 4,800 pounds at launch, about half of that is fuel
  • Fuel saved by aerobraking maneuver &#151about 1,000 pounds
  • Other spacecraft currently at Mars: NASA’s Opportunity Rover, Spirit Rover, Mars Global Surveyor, and Mars Odyssey, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express