Volume: 04, Issue: 14 03/08/2006 
Following a 7-month trip, MRO will dip into Mars' atmosphere and change its initial elliptical orbit into the circular shape scientists require. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
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Artist's concept of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter approaching Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
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Mars' polar ice caps are targets of instruments aboard MRO and should help astronomers learn about water on the Red Planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
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Other Articles in This Issue:
NASA Aids in Resolving Long Standing Solar Cycle Mystery
Study of Tsunami Forces Rethinking of Theory of Giant Earthquakes
A Space Experience
Discuss Spaceflight with Former Astronaut Dr. Tony England
 

NASA's Next Leap in Mars Exploration

The next Mars spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet on March 10, 2006. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is completing the last leg of its seven month journey. At about 4:24 PM Eastern Standard Time, on 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 six 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 two year primary science mission, MRO will return more data to Earth than all previous Mars missions combined. Orbiting between 160 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 is the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) that ranks as the most powerful imager ever sent to another world. It is able to photograph surface features as small as a kitchen table. The second camera will cover wider swaths at a 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; 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.

Here are some quick 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, Mars Odyssey, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express

To read more about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, please visit the following websites:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/MRO/news/mro-20060224.html
http://www.astronomy.com/asy/default.aspx?c=a&id=4008.

Space Explorers Mission: Solar System subscribers may also read more about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter by visiting our Space Library at www.space-explorers.com.

    
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