MRO Hits Its Mark

Cheers erupted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sent a signal back to Earth, right on schedule. This signal told scientists in the control room that the spacecraft had survived its perilous journey to enter martian orbit.

Members of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team cheer during the Mar. 10, 2006, successful orbit insertion. On the right, project manager Jim Graf shakes a hand. In the middle is Fuk Li, Director of JPL’s Mars Exploration Directorate. Click image for larger view.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As expected, contact with the spacecraft had been lost at 1:46 pm Pacific Standard Time Friday. The signal was blocked as the spacecraft looped behind the planet Mars. Mission scientists were on the edge of their seats as they waited to discover their orbiter’s fate. Would everything go as planned, or would MRO become another statistic among the many lost Mars orbiters of the past?

“John Glenn gets a lot of credit for sitting on top of a rocket and his pulse didn’t go up above 50 the whole time,” says Jim Crocker, vice president of civil space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “I don’t know what the big deal is – the whole time we were behind Mars my pulse didn’t go above zero.”

At 2:16 p.m. the spacecraft sent a signal back to Earth, indicating it had survived its pass behind Mars. MRO is now in an elongated, 35-hour orbit.

“This is a very emotional moment for me,” says Rich Zurek, MRO Project Scientist. “Two of our eight investigations were investigations that were lost with the Mars Climate Orbiter. One was lost with Mars Observer. They are now in orbit around Mars.”

MRO joins three other spacecraft at Mars: NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Odyssey, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is expected to provide more science data than all previous Mars missions combined. Besides sending extremely detailed photos and other data, it will relay information from surface missions, including NASA’s Phoenix lander, which is scheduled to head to Mars next year, and the Mars Science Laboratory, which is in development for 2009.

Artist’s depiction of MRO during Mars Orbital Insertion. Click image for larger view
Credit: NASA/JPL

Before that can happen, MRO needs to reduce its elongated orbit into a more circular one. It will achieve this by aerobraking, dragging its body against the martian atmosphere in order to slow down.

"The celebration feels great, but it will be very brief because before we start our main science phase, we still have six months of challenging work to adjust the orbit to the right size and shape," says Jim Graf, project manager for the mission.

MRO should be positioned to start collecting science data in November. A spectrometer will map water-related minerals in patches as small as a baseball infield. A radar instrument will probe for underground layers of rock and water. One telescopic camera will resolve features as small as a card table. Another will put the highest-resolution images into broader context. A color camera will monitor the entire planet daily for changes in weather. A radiometer will check each layer of the atmosphere for variations in temperature, water vapor and dust.

"The missions currently at Mars have each advanced what we know about the presence and history of water on Mars, and one of the main goals for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is to decipher when water was on the surface and where it is now," says Zurek. "Water is essential for life, so that will help focus future studies of whether Mars has ever supported life."

Related Web Pages

NASA MRO homepage
MRO Approaches Mars
The Nuts and Bolts
Five Easy Pieces
MRO Lifts Off Into Space