NASA's New Mars Orbiter Will Sharpen Vision of Exploration
NASA's next mission to Mars will examine the red planet in
unprecedented detail from low orbit and provide more data about
the intriguing planet than all previous missions combined. The Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter and its launch vehicle are nearing final stages
of preparation at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., for a launch
opportunity that begins Aug. 10.
Image right: Artist's concept of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the red planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
+ Full image and caption
The spacecraft will examine Martian features ranging from the top
of the atmosphere to underground layering. Researchers will use it
to study the history and distribution of Martian water. It will
also support future Mars missions by characterizing landing sites
and providing a high-data-rate communications relay.
"Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the next step in our ambitious exploration
of Mars," said NASA's director, Mars Exploration Program, Science Mission
Directorate, Douglas McCuistion. "We expect to use this spacecraft's eyes
in the sky in coming years as our primary tools to identify and evaluate
the best places for future missions to land."
The spacecraft carries six instruments for probing the atmosphere, surface
and subsurface to characterize the planet and how it changed over time.
One of the science payload's three cameras will be the largest-diameter
telescopic camera ever sent to another planet. It will reveal rocks and
layers as small as the width of an office desk. Another camera will expand
the present area of high-resolution coverage by a factor of 10. A third will
provide global maps of Martian weather.
The other three instruments are a spectrometer for identifying water-related
minerals in patches as small as a baseball infield; a ground-penetrating radar,
supplied by the Italian Space Agency, to peer beneath the surface for layers or
rock, ice and, if present, water; and a radiometer to monitor atmospheric dust,
water vapor and temperature.
Two additional scientific investigations will analyze the motion of the spacecraft
in orbit to study the structure of the upper atmosphere and the Martian gravity field.
"We will keep pursuing a follow-the-water strategy with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,"
said Dr. Michael Meyer, Mars exploration chief scientist at NASA Headquarters. "Dramatic
discoveries by Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and the Mars Exploration Rovers about
recent gullies, near-surface permafrost and ancient surface water have given us a new
Mars in the past few years. Learning more about what has happened to the water will focus
searches for possible Martian life, past or present."
Dr. Richard Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project
scientist for the orbiter, said, "Higher resolution is a major driver for this mission.
Every time we look with increased resolution, Mars has said, 'Here's something you didn't
expect. You don't understand me yet.' We're sure to find surprises."
The orbiter will reach Mars in March 2006. It will gradually adjust the shape of its
orbit by aerobraking, a technique that uses the friction of careful dips into the planet's
upper atmosphere. For the mission's 25-month primary science phase, beginning in November 2006,
the planned orbit averages about 190 miles above the surface, more than 20 percent lower
than the average for any of the three current Mars orbiters. The lower orbit adds to the
ability to see Mars as it has never been seen before.
To get information from its instruments to Earth, the orbiter carries the biggest antenna
ever sent to Mars and a transmitter powered by large solar panels. "It can send 10 times
as much data per minute as any previous Mars spacecraft," said JPL's James Graf, project
manager. "This increased return multiplies the value of the instruments by permitting
increased coverage of the surface at higher resolution than ever before. The same
telecommunications gear will be used to relay critical science data to Earth from landers."
To loft so big a spacecraft, weighing more than two tons fully fueled, NASA will use a
powerful Atlas V launch vehicle for the first time on an interplanetary mission.
The mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology,
Pasadena, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver,
is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.
For information about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on the Web, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mro
Guy Webster (818) 354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Dolores Beasley (202) 358-1753
NASA Headquarters, Washington