Next phase of Mars exploration to begin

NASA spacecraft arrives at the Red Planet March 10.
By | Published: March 3, 2006 | Last updated on May 18, 2023

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March 3, 2006

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WAUKESHA, WI – The next Mars spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet March 10. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is completing the last leg of its 7-month journey. A little after 4:24 p.m. Eastern time, March 10, ground controllers for MRO expect a signal from the vehicle confirming its engine burn has begun. This burn will slow MRO enough for Mars’ gravity to capture it.

MRO’s first orbit will take about 35 hours. For the next 6 months, the probe 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.

During its 2-year primary science mission, MRO will return more data to Earth than all previous Mars missions combined. Orbiting between 160 miles and 200 miles above the planet, MRO will examine Mars from the top of the planet’s atmosphere to beneath its surface – 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 – High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) – ranks as the most powerful imager ever sent to another world. It’s able to photograph surface features as small as a kitchen table. The second camera will cover wider swaths at somewhat lower resolution; this will increase the areas on Mars seen in good detail by a factor of 10. A third camera will produce global maps of martian weather.

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 at layers of rock, ice, and, perhaps, water; and a radiometer will monitor dust, water vapor, and temperatures in the martian atmosphere.

Fast facts about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

  • Launched August 12, 2005
  • Height – 21 feet, topped by a 33-foot-diameter radio dish
  • Width – 45 feet from the tip of one solar panel to the tip of the other
  • Weight – 4,800 pounds at launch, about half of that is fuel
  • Fuel saved by aerobraking maneuver – about 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
  • Official mission web site,

MRO science instruments:

  • Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) splits visible and infrared light images into the colors that make up its spectrum.
  • High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) is a visible-light camera that will examine small-scale objects like debris blankets, craters, and deposits of layered materials.
  • Context Camera (CTX) will give wide-field views of areas targeted by HiRISE and CRISM to provide geological context.
  • Mars Color Imager (MARCI) is a weather-monitoring camera that will image the planet’s clouds and dust storms each day.
  • Mars Climate Sounder (MCS), an atmospheric profiler, detects vertical differences of temperature, water vapor concentrations, and dust in the atmosphere.
  • Shallow Radar (SHARAD) is a sounding radar that will search for water ice beneath the planet’s surface at depths greater than 3.3 feet (1 meter).
  • Electra UHF Communications and Navigation Package lets the spacecraft relay communications between landers on Mars’ surface and Earth stations.
  • Optical Navigation Camera is being tested to evaluate its navigational potential for use on future missions.
  • Gravity Field Investigation Package tracks the orbiter during the primary science phase of its mission in order to map Mars’ gravity field.
  • Atmospheric Structure Investigation Accelerometers collects acceleration data during MRO’s aerobraking to better understand the martian atmosphere’s structure.

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

Astronomy magazine’s special collector’s edition, Mars, explores the Red Planet’s past, present, and future. It includes a comprehensive look at the history of Mars exploration, and summarizes the current plans for future exploration. This publication is a must-have for reporting on Mars. To request a copy, please contact Assistant Editor Matt Quandt at 262.796.8776 or