NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on August 12, 2005, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station using an Atlas III expendable booster. The primary mission of this spacecraft is to make high-resolution measurements of the planet's surface from orbit. It is equipped with a visible stereo imaging camera (HiRISE) with resolution much better than 3 feet (1 m) and a visible/near-infrared spectrometer (CRISM) to study the surface composition. Also on board the spacecraft is an infrared radiometer, an accelerometer, and the shallow subsurface sounding radar (SHARAD) provided by the Italian Space Agency to search for underground water. Tracking of the orbiter spacecraft will give scientists information on the gravity field of Mars.
The primary science objectives of the mission will be to look for evidence of past or present water, to study the weather and climate, and to identify landing sites for future missions. Data from MRO is allowing scientists to investigate complex terrain on Mars and to identify water-
Starting in 2006, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft began to take extremely high-resolution images of the planet's surface and to use its sounder to investigate scientifically interesting areas for the possibility of subsurface water. (NASA/JPL)
related landforms. The MRO is also assisting scientists as they search for sites on the Red Planet that exhibit stratigraphic or compositional evidence of water or hydrothermal activity. Instruments carried by the MRO can probe beneath the planet's surface for evidence of subsurface layering, water, and ice and can profile the internal structure of the Martian polar caps. Another important role that MRO is playing is to identify and characterize sites on Mars with the highest potential for future robot missions to the surface, including robot missions to collect soil and rock samples for analysis on Earth.
The MRO spacecraft has a height of 21 feet (6.5 m) and is topped by a 10-foot- (3-m-) diameter radio frequency antenna dish. The spacecraft has a width of 45 feet (13.6 m) from the tip of one extended solar panel to the tip of the other. The solar panels contain about 220 square feet (20 m2) of solar cells for electric power generation. At launch, MRO had a mass of
4,800 pounds (2,180 kg) with propellant for its 20 onboard thrusters making up about one-half of this mass.
In early September 2006, MRO completed the challenging task of shaping its orbit to a nearly circular, low altitude (about 160 mile [255 km]) polar orbit needed to scrutinize carefully the entire surface of the Red Planet. The spacecraft is now in its planned 24-month (two Earth years) science-mission phase. MRO can pour science data back to scientists on Earth more than 10 times faster than any previous Mars mission. Allowing the spacecraft to accomplish this great improvement in telemetry are a wider antenna dish, a faster onboard computer, and an amplifier powered by a larger solar-cell array. The information gathering will take place during one Martian year (roughly two Earth years), after which NASA will use the orbiter spacecraft as a communications relay satellite for future missions that land on the surface of Mars, such as the Phoenix lander spacecraft. Data from the MRO will also help NASA scientists select landing sites for future surface missions, such as the Mars Science Laboratory.
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