Mars or Bust - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Sunday, August 14 2005 @ 12:30 pm EDT
Contributed by: bobmoody
Rising into the air in the morning sun, an Atlas V rocket lifts off for the Red Planet. In the nose cone, the largest spacecraft ever sent to Mars huddles under the shroud, wings folded, antennae tucked tightly away. It will arrive in March 2006, seven months from now, and then spend another six months gradually circularizing its orbit until its 25-month science mission can begin. That mission is a prestigious one, but it will continue to serve future missions to Mars by using its sophisticated high-speed communications system to relay data back-and-forth at more than 10 times the rate of any other communications system to date. Say hello to the fast-talking new kid in orbit, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO.
|An Atlas V rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral Air Station at approximately 7:43 a.m. on August 12, 2005. Its payload is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and by November 2006, it will begin the most highly-detailed, in-depth study of Mars yet conceived.|
It needed a heavy-lift rocket to get off the Earth and send it some 70 million miles towards the planet Mars. As the hours passed on launch day, big grins pervaded the control room as item after item on the checklist were crossed-off satisfactorily. So far, so good. MRO is now in the "cruise" phase of its mission.
It's dimensions are impressive standing 21 feet tall with a 10 foot-diameter communications antenna.
When its solar panels are fully extended they will be 45 feet wide from tip-to-tip. The entire craft weighs a little over 4,800 lbs, and nearly half of that weight at launch will be the fuel needed for use in the 20 on-board thrusters that will control it while in orbit. MRO was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, CO.
|Aerobraking will take MRO skimming just above the thickest part of Mars' atmosphere numerous times, each pass slowly refining the shape and altitude of its orbit until it becomes nearly circularized by September 2006.|
This mission to Mars will seek to establish the following goals. 1) Characterize the present climate of Mars. How exactly does the climate change from season-to-season and from year-to-year. 2) Characterize Mars atmosphere and monitor its weather. 3) Investigate complex terrain on Mars and identify water-related landforms. 4) Search for sites showing stratigraphic or compositional evidence of water or hydrothermal activity. 5) Probe beneath the surface for evidence of subsurface layering, water and ice, and profile the internal structure of the polar ice caps. 6) Identify and characterize sites with the highest potential for future landings on the surface to include sites from where sample return missions might land. 7) Relay scientific information to Earth from current and future Mars surface missions.
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MRO carries six science experiments. The HiRISE camera High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment designed to see objects as small as 3 feet in diameter....small enough to see the Mars Exploration Rovers "Spirit" and "Opportunity" on the surface from orbit. CRISM, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars designed to look for water-related materials with a resolution of areas as small as a swimming pool at several thousand carefully chosen locations, and will also search the entire Martian surface with a resolution of 650 feet. CTX, the Context Camera will take wide-angle images of the surface to help determine where the higher resolution HiRISE and CRISM instruments will search. The MCS Mars Climate Sounder looks both down and through the atmosphere at an angle to help determine variations in the amounts of water vapor, dust and temperature variations. MARCI, the Mars Color Imager will track changes in Mars' global weather. This instrument is a virtual copy of the imager on the currently orbitting Mars Climate Orbiter, but with a wider-angle "fish-eye" lens for use when the MRO is rolling into position for other work. And last but certainly not least, the SHARADShallow Radar instrument designed to "see" under the surface of Mars to a depth of nearly 1/3 mile deep searching for layers of rock, ice, and perhaps liquid water that might be accessible from the surface.
|Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter cruising above the Martian polar ice cap.|
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will pioneer new technologies, utilize old technologies to their utmost efficiency, and provide a new generation of communications technology to assist future Mars missions in relaying data to and from Earth. It's just one of several current and upcoming missions that we will see over the next decade designed to assist mankind in our future plans to send a manned Mars mission to our most intriguing neighbor in the solar system.
Detail information provided by "NASA Facts"
Learn more at the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter website at: http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/mro/
Links to more Mars missions:
MGS - Mars Global Surveyor
Mars Exploration Rovers - Spirit & Opportunity