Friday, August 12, 2005

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Blasts Off for Red Planet


     NASA’s latest robotic mission to further unlock the mysteries of the red planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), successfully blasted off Friday, a day after a software glitch had scrubbed its initial launch.

     The MRO was carried into space on an Atlas V rocket and is now on a nearly seven-month journey to Mars.

     Surveying for the deepest insights into the mysterious evolution of Mars!" NASA commentator George Diller said after liftoff. The launch came just three days after space shuttle Discovery completed its mission.

     The launch had been delayed 24 hours after engineers saw an anomalous reading in the hydrogen propellant loading system on the Atlas V. There was insufficient time in the launch window to fully investigate the reading.

     MRO is carrying a hefty science payload to Mars, with six instruments designed to track Martian weather, resolve objects on the surface the size of a kitchen table and measure the planet’s composition and atmospheric structure with more detail than ever before.

     “The MRO spacecraft is many things,” Richard Zurek, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told prior to launch. “It’s a weather satellite, it’s a geological surveyor, and it’s a scout for future missions.”

     The orbital spacecraft is expected to be the vanguard for two landers NASA plans to launch toward Mars in the next five years, and will identify potential landing targets. The Phoenix lander is currently scheduled to launch in 2007 and touchdown in the planet’s polar region. A large rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, is expected to launch in 2009.

     The $720 million mission is divided into two parts. It should take MRO about seven months to reach Mars then another seven months or so to slowly adjust its eccentric orbit around Mars into a 250-mile (400-kilometer) high circle. The orbiter will use aerobraking to adjust its orbit, swooping in close to Mars and using the atmosphere to slow down.

      During its first two years, the orbiter will help build on NASA's knowledge of the history of ice on the planet. The planet is cold and dry with large caps of frozen water at its poles. But some scientists think it was a wetter and possibly warmer place a times eons ago—conditions that might have been conducive to life. Scientists are also trying to determine if it could support future human outposts.

     During the second phase of its mission, the orbiter will serve as a communications messenger between the robotic explorers on Mars and Earth. The reconnaissance orbiter has a powerful antenna that can transmit 10 times more data per minute than the current trio of satellites positioned around the planet--NASA's Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency's Mars Express.

      Two NASA rovers launched in 2003, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to roam the planet and may be the first robots to relay information back to Earth via the reconnaissance orbiter.

     The orbiter is loaded with two cameras that will provide high-resolution images and global maps of Martian weather, a spectrometer that will identify water-related minerals and a radiometer to measure atmospheric dust. The Italian Space Agency has provided ground-penetrating radar that will peer beneath the surface of layers of rocks or ice.

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