Volume: 03, Issue: 17 08/22/2005 
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launches from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 12. Image courtesy NASA TV.
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Artist's concept of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter en route to Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
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Other Articles in This Issue:
International Space Station Will Host Civilian
Spacewalk Ends Early for Space Station Crew
Discovery to Launch Again in March
Study Weightlessness through Electronic Field Trip

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Hurtles Toward the Red Planet

As the sun peeked over the horizon on Aug. 12, 2005, the roar of an Atlas V launch vehicle -- 19 stories tall with a two-ton spacecraft on top -- shattered the silence at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch kicked off a seven-month journey to Mars for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Set to reach Mars in March 2006, the orbiter will inspect the Red Planet in finer detail than ever before. Its high-resolution camera, for example, will reveal surface features as small as a dishwasher. NASA expects to get several times more Mars data from the orbiter than all previous Martian missions combined.

Six scientific instruments reside in the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The tools will examine the surface, atmosphere, and subsurface of Mars in unprecedented detail from low orbit. Researchers will use the instruments to learn more about the history and distribution of Mars' water, helping explain planetary climate change and guiding the quest to answer whether Mars ever supported life. The orbiter will also evaluate potential landing sites for future missions and use its high-data-rate communications system to relay information between Mars surface missions and Earth.

The spacecraft’s cruise period will be busy with checkups, calibrations, and trajectory adjustments. Four trajectory correction maneuvers are scheduled before the orbiter reaches Mars, the first and largest of which is planned for Aug. 27.

The orbiter has already completed one of its calibration tasks, calibrating the Mars Color Imager instrument on Aug. 15. The spacecraft slewed about 15 degrees to scan the camera across the positions of the Earth and Moon, then returned to the attitude it will hold for most of the cruise. Data were properly recorded onboard, downlinked to Earth, and received by the Mars Color Imager team at Malin Space Science Systems.

This multiple-waveband camera is the widest-angle instrument of four cameras on the orbiter, designed for imaging all of Mars daily from an altitude of about 300 kilometers (186 miles). Imaged at a range of more than 1 million kilometers (620,000 miles) away, the crescent Earth and Moon fill only a few pixels and are not resolved in the image. However, this is enough useful information to characterize the instrument's response in its seven color bands, including two ultraviolet channels that will be used to trace ozone in the Mars atmosphere. This is the first of two events early in the cruise phase that check instrument calibrations after launching. The second will occur in early September when higher resolution cameras are pointed at Earth and the Moon as the spacecraft continues its flight to Mars.

The spacecraft will reach Mars on about March 10, 2006. Upon arrival, the spacecraft will fire its engines and slow itself enough for Martian gravity to capture it into a very elongated orbit. The spacecraft will spend half a year gradually shrinking and shaping its orbit by "aerobraking," a technique using the friction of carefully calculated dips into the upper atmosphere to slow the vehicle. It will begin its primary science phase in November 2006.

More information about the mission is available online at http://www.nasa.gov/mro .

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