Artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched Aug. 12, 2005, as part of the search for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. While other Mars missions have shown that water flowed across the surface in Mars's history, it remains a mystery whether water was ever around long enough to provide a habitat for life.
After a seven-month cruise to Mars and six months of aerobraking to reach its science orbit, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter seeks to find out about the history of water on Mars with its science instruments. The orbiter team zooms in for extreme close-up photography of the martian surface, analyzes minerals, looks for subsurface water, traces how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere, and monitors daily global weather.
These studies help determine if there are deposits of minerals that form in water over long periods of time, detects any shorelines of ancient seas and lakes, and analyzes deposits placed in layers over time by flowing water. The orbiter also detects whether the underground martian ice discovered by the Mars Odyssey orbiter is the top layer of a deep ice deposit or whether it is a shallow layer in equilibrium with the current atmosphere and its seasonal cycle of water vapor.
Pictured on this page, the artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter features the spacecraft's main bus facing down, toward the planet. The large silver circular feature above the spacecraft bus is the high-gain antenna, the spacecraft's main means of communicating with both Earth and other spacecraft. The long, thin pole behind the bus is the SHARAD antenna. Seeking liquid or frozen water, SHARAD will probe the subsurface using radar waves, "seeing" in the first few hundreds of feet of Mars' crust. The large instrument (covered in black thermal blanketing) in the center is the HiRISE camera. This powerful camera will provide the highest-resolution images from orbit to date.
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