MRO Lifts Off Into Space

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Liftoff of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on August 12, 2005. Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: NASA/KSC

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launched this morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will take seven months to reach Mars, arriving at the planet in March 2006.

The spacecraft will then need an additional six months to reach its final orbit around Mars, using aerobraking to slowly close its large looping path around the planet into a tighter orbit. Once the spacecraft is in an appropriate orbit around Mars, it will gather science data for two years.

Originally scheduled to launch the morning of August 10, it was postponed due to a failure of a Redundant Rate Gryo Unit (RRGU) at the manufacturer. Launch engineers were concerned because the failed unit is similar to two RRGUs that are part of the flight control system on MRO’s Atlas V launch vehicle. Problems with the fueling sensors caused the launch to be scrubbed on August 11.

The theme of MRO is to follow the water. Understanding how much water is on Mars today could indicate whether or not life ever appeared on the Red Planet. The eight science investigations on MRO will look for water sources in the atmosphere, surface and subsurface. For instance, MRO will follow up on a discovery made by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which detected water ice in the upper surface of Mars.

"We want to know of that layer of ice is just a thin layer that’s in equilibrium with today’s atmosphere, or whether it represents just the tip of an iceberg, so to speak, a cryosphere that extends much deeper," says Richard Zurek, MRO Project Scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

MRO will be able to see much finer details than previous orbiters, picking out objects as small as a dinner table on the surface. Because of the advanced telecommunications systems on MRO, it will be able to send several times more data than all previous Mars missions combined.

Martian Ice-Floe
Erupting about 5 million years ago, from a series of fractures known as the Cerberus Fossae, the water flowed down in a catastrophic flood, collecting in an area 800 x 900 km and was initially an average of 45 meters deep. Click image for larger view.Credit: ESA/Mars Express

"(Mars Global Surveyor) and Odyssey are in the kilobit per second range – they’re bringing their data back, we think of it as through a straw," says Jim Graf, MRO Project Manager from JPL. "When MRO is there, we’re going to start opening up the fire hose, and bringing back (data) at 5.6 megabits per second."

MRO will look for safe landing place for the Phoenix Lander, which is due to arrive on the far northern martian surface in 2007. MRO also will look for a safe landing spot for the Mars Science Laboratory, a large rover scheduled for 2009. MRO will act as a telecommunications relay for both these future missions. The entire MRO mission is slated to last until 2010, although it has enough fuel onboard to last until 2014 if necessary.

By analyzing the martian climate and geology, MRO will help pinpoint the resources as well as the hazards that future human explorers to Mars may face.

"When you’re talking about human missions, just the planning of those – scoping out what options you want to try, which directions you want to go in terms of the implementation – you have to know your environment and what you’re working in. It’s also possible that you’re going to use the atmosphere itself, through aerocapture or aerobraking of large payloads down to the surface to provide an infrastructure for future humans," says Zurek. "Is water ice close to the surface, and is there a lot of it? Could we get to that relatively easily? Because once you have ice, you can break that down into a whole variety of things. We don’t want to be hauling cement to Mars; that’s very expensive. Better to know what we can make on the surface of the planet."