Mars Orbiter Completes First Phase of Science Mission
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has
completed its primary, two-year science phase. The
spacecraft has found signs of a complex Martian history
of climate change that produced a diversity of past watery
The orbiter has returned 73 terabits of science data,
more than all earlier Mars missions combined. The spacecraft
will build on this record as it continues to examine Mars in
unprecedented detail during its next two-year phase of science operations.
Among the major findings during the primary science phase
is the revelation that the action of water on and near the
surface of Mars occurred for hundreds of millions of years.
This activity was at least regional and possibly global in extent,
though possibly intermittent. The spacecraft also observed that
signatures of a variety of watery environments, some acidic,
some alkaline, increase the possibility that there are places on
Mars that could reveal evidence of past life, if it ever existed.
Since moving into position 186 miles above Mars' surface in October
2006, the orbiter also has conducted 10,000 targeted observation
sequences of high-priority areas. It has imaged nearly 40 percent
of the planet at a resolution that can reveal house-sized objects
in detail, with one percent in enough detail to see desk-sized
features. This survey has covered almost 60 percent of Mars in
mineral mapping bands at stadium-size resolution. The orbiter also
assembled nearly 700 daily global weather maps, dozens of atmospheric
temperature profiles, and hundreds of radar profiles of the subsurface
and the interior of the polar caps.
"These observations are now at the level of detail necessary to test
hypotheses about when and where water has changed Mars and where future
missions will be most productive as they search for habitable regions
on Mars," said Richard Zurek, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project
scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Included in the observations are hundreds of stereo pairs used to
make detailed topography maps and classic images in support of other
Mars missions. One image showed the Mars rover Opportunity poised on
the rim of Victoria Crater, and another was of NASA's Phoenix Mars
Lander during its descent to the surface. Orbiter data prompted the
Phoenix team to change the spacecraft's landing site, and are being
used to select the landing location for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory,
which is scheduled for launch in 2011. For five months of Phoenix
operations on Mars that ended in November, the Mars Reconnaissance
Orbiter and NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter shared the vital communications
roles of relaying commands to the lander, and data from Phoenix back
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found repetitive layering in Mars'
permanent polar ice caps. The patterns suggest climate change cycles
continuing to the present. They may record possible effects of cyclical
changes in Mars' tilt and orbit on global sunlight patterns. Recent climate
cycles are indicated by radar detection of subsurface icy deposits outside
the polar regions, closer to the equator, where near-surface ice is not
permanently stable. Other results reveal details of ancient streambeds,
atmospheric hazes and motions of water, along with the ever-changing
weather on Mars.
Most observations from the orbiter will be discontinued for a few weeks
while the sun is between Earth and Mars, which will disrupt communications.
This month, the orbiter will begin a new phase, with science observations
continuing as Mars makes another orbit around the sun, which takes
approximately two Earth years.
"This spacecraft truly exemplifies the best in capabilities to support
science and other Martian spacecraft activities," said Michael Meyer, lead
scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
"MRO has exceeded its own goals and our expectations. We look forward to
more discoveries as we continue to look at the Red Planet in spectacular detail."
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the Mars Reconnaissance
Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin
Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built
the spacecraft. For more information about the mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mro .
Media contacts: Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington