Mars Cameras Debut as NASA Craft Adjusts Orbit
Researchers today released the first Mars images from two of the
three science cameras on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Images taken by the orbiter's Context Camera and Mars Color Imager
during the first tests of those instruments at Mars confirm the performance
capability of the cameras. The test images were taken from nearly 10 times
as far from the planet as the spacecraft will be once it finishes reshaping
its orbit. Test images from the third camera of the science payload were
Image right: The Mars Color Imager test view looks northward and includes the large Argyre Basin in Mars' southern hemisphere. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL/MSSS
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"The test images show that both cameras will meet or exceed their performance
requirements once they're in the low-altitude science orbit. We're looking
forward to that time with great anticipation," said Dr. Michael Malin of Malin
Space Science Systems, San Diego. Malin is team leader for the context camera
and principal investigator for the Mars Color Imager.
The cameras took the test images two weeks after the orbiter's March 10 arrival
at Mars and before the start of "aerobraking," a process of reshaping the orbit
by using controlled contact with Mars' atmosphere. This week, the spacecraft is
dipping into Mars' upper atmosphere as it approaches the altitude range that it
will use for shrinking its orbit gradually over the next six months.
The orbiter is currently flying in very elongated loops around Mars. Each circuit
lasts about 35 hours and takes the spacecraft about 27,000 miles (43,000 kilometers)
away from the planet before swinging back in close.
On Wednesday, a short burn of intermediate sized thrusters while the orbiter was at
the most distant point nudged the spacecraft to pass from approximately 70 miles
(112 kilometers) to within 66 miles (107 kilometers) of Mars' surface.
"This brings us well into Mars' upper atmosphere for the drag pass and will enable
the mission to start reducing the orbit to its final science altitude," said Dan Johnston
of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., deputy mission manager.
After hundreds of passes through the upper atmosphere, the drag will gradually reduce
the far point of the orbit until the spacecraft is in a nearly circular orbit every two hours.
After the spacecraft gets into the proper orbit for its primary science phase, the six
science instruments on board will begin their systematic examination of Mars. The Mars
Color Imager will view the planet's entire atmosphere and surface every day to monitor
changes in clouds, wind-blown dust, polar caps and other variable features.
Images from the Context Camera will have a resolution of 20 feet (6 meters) per pixel,
allowing surface features as small as a basketball court to be discerned. The images
will cover swaths 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) wide.
The Context Camera will show how smaller areas examined by the High Resolution Imaging
Science Experiment Camera -- which will have the best resolution ever achieved from Mars
orbit -- and by the mineral-identifying Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer fit
into the broader landscape. It will also allow scientists to watch for small-scale changes,
such as newly cut gullies, in the broader coverage area.
The new test images from the Context Camera and the Mars Color Imager are available online
For more detailed information about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is managed by JPL, a division of the California
Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor.
Guy Webster (818) 354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Dwayne Brown/Erica Hupp (202) 358-1726/1237
NASA Headquarters, Washington