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2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

Looking for Sample Return Landing Sites

NASA artist concept of 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
NASA artist concept of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Red Planet.

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MRO photo of Phobos
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recorded this image of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons, on March 23, 2008, from a distance of about 4,200 miles (about 6,800 kilometers).

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photo
MRO photographed the inside of Holden Crater in the southern hemisphere of Mars on December 4, 2006, as it checked out more than two dozen possible landing sites for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover, which was scheduled for launch in 2009. Holden has deep gullies carved by running water and likely lake beds about 3.7 billion years – a wet period of early Martian history. Since then the planet has been dry and cold with some water frozen in the polar regions.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photo of Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.
MRO image of Mars May 12-18, 2008, by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

MRO photo of Phoenix lander
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft was passing overhead when it photographed the Phoenix lander parachuting to the surface Mars on May 25, 2008.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the Moon
A month into its seven-month flight to Mars, and six million miles from the Moon on Sept. 8, 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's powerful HiRISE camera snapped a test shot of the Moon's craters and seas bathed half in sunlight and half in darkness, including the dark Mare Crisium at right. The calibration test shot verified the camera's focus.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the Moon
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 99 million miles from the Sun on its way to Mars, was not damaged when the Sun erupted on September 7, 2005, in one of the largest solar flares in years. Energy from flares travel across our Solar System, but become less energetic the farther they go. Such bursts of energy from the Sun often interrupt electricity and communication on Earth. Spacecraft designers take into account that energetic particles could reset a computer or even blast a hole in electronic circuitry. NOAA image


Insertion Record
From Mariner 9's successful insertion into Mars orbit in 1971 through MRO in 2006, the U.S. now is 6-2 on orbital insertions at Mars.

The U.S. space agency also has completed successfully five of its six attempts to land on Mars.

Successful orbital insertions:

  • The first man-made satellite to orbit a planet other than Earth was America's Mariner 9 launched in 1971.

  • Viking 1, launched in 1975, flew into orbit around Mars from where it dropped its lander to the surface in 1976.

  • Viking 2, launched in 1975, went into orbit around Mars and dropped its lander to the surface in 1976.

  • In 1996, Mars Global Surveyor orbited Mars.

  • In 2001, Mars Odyssey orbited Mars.

  • In 2006, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter orbited Mars.

    Unsuccessful orbital insertions:

  • In 1993, Mars Observer was intended for orbit, but was lost.

  • In 1999, Mars Climate Orbiter was intended for orbit, but was lost.

    Successful bulls-eye landings:

    Hitting the middle of a planetary bulls-eye is not unlike hitting the upper edge of the planet's atmosphere. Navigation has to be right on target in both cases.

  • In 1997, America's Pathfinder with the Sojourner rover went straight in to a landing on Mars.

  • In 2004, Mars Exploration Rover Spirit flew straight in and landed.

  • In 2004, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity flew straight in and landed.

    Unsuccessful bulls-eye landings:

  • In 1999, Mars Polar Lander was intended to land directly on Mars, but was lost.

    Other early fly-by successes:

  • America's Mariner 4 launched in 1964 was the first successful probe to reach Mars as the probe flew by in 1965.

  • In 1969, the U.S. probes Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 successfully completed the first dual-spacecraft fly-by mission to the Red Planet.

  • Interplanetary Internet
    Four years after NASA launched Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the space agency had planned to extend the Internet to Mars by launching the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter (MTO) in 2009.

    MTO would have arrived in a high orbit over Mars in 2010. From there, it would have served as an Internet hub, receiving a flood of science information as data packets from a growing fleet of Mars probes, orbiters, landers, rovers and science stations, and relaying them to Earth for as much as ten years.

    The interplanetary Internet would have linked disparate science missions such as Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Europe's Mars Express Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the future Phoenix Mars Scout and Mars Science Laboratory landers.

    Data rate. MTO not only would have been able to send data to Earth via high-speed X-band and Ka-band radio signals, but also via laser light beams. That was expected to bring a tenfold increase in bandwidth – the rate of data transmission.

    That data transmission speed had been likened to four "T1 lines" that might be found in use on Earth.

    Three CDs a day. Orbiting 3,000 miles above the Red Planet, MTO would have been in contact with Earth around the clock. That high orbit would have been 20 times farther from the planet surface than other orbiters. From up there, it would have had a direct line of sight to Earth.

    Laser beam. While the optical communication signals arriving at Earth would have been susceptible to blocking by clouds, they would have been able to carry 10,000 times more data than microwave radio signals. MTO would have been able to transmit the equivalent of three compact disks of data each day.

    Unfortunately... On July 21, 2005, NASA announced cancellation of MTO because the space agency needed to support a Hubble servicing mission, the Mars Exploration Rover extended mission operations, and the Mars Science Laboratory to fly in 2009. The cancellation also saved Glory, an Earth science mission.

    The space agency will launch the Mars Science Laboratory in 2009.

    The Moon. NASA would like to send a similar interplanetary Internet hub to the Moon because there are lots of missions to lunar orbit and the lunar surface planned by Japan, India, China, Europe and the United States.

    The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flew into orbit around Mars on March 10, 2006. From the successful insertion of Mariner 9 into Mars orbit in 1971 through MRO in 2006, the U.S. now is 6-2 on orbital insertions at Mars.

    Aerobraking. With the spacecraft in orbit above Mars, the navigation team was able to start a six-month process of changing the initial 35-hour highly-elliptical orbit to a close-in more-circular orbit that would require only two hours for MRO to circle the planet.

    That technique for changing the spacecraft's orbit is known as aerobraking. Flight controllers back on Earth are sending MRO on a series of shallow dips in the top of the Martian atmosphere. The atmospheric drag on the spacecraft slows it down slightly and change its orbit. Gradually, the spacecraft adjusts the shape of its orbit by using friction from those carefully calculated dips into the top of the Martian atmosphere.

    Scientific research. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter starts its scientific observations in November 2006. They will last one Martian year, which is two Earth years.

    The powerful MRO science spacecraft carries six research instruments in the search for water and future sample-return landing sites on the surface. Among its tools is the most powerful telescope camera ever flown to another planet. The high-resolution camera will be able to see features on the planet as small as a few feet in diameter.

    MRO will function as both weather satellite and geology explorer. A radar system known as SHARAD, supplied by the Italian Space Agency, will see a third of a mile below the planet's surface for signs of water ice. For instance, it might see permafrost extending deep into the planet. Scientists have wondered if water that once may have been in Mars' atmosphere might now be frozen underground.

    MRO will start its scientific research in November 2006. During its first two years over the Red Planet, MRO will add to human knowledge of the history of ice on Mars.

    From its orbit above the Red Planet, the Martian satellite will record extraordinarily-sharp images of thousands of rocks and other objects on the Martian landscapes about the size of a beach ball. That's a resolution of eight to twelve inches.

    MRO has the largest and most powerful telescopic camera ever sent to another planet.

    Mars today is cold and dry with frozen water caps covering its poles. Eons ago, it may have been wet and warm. That might have fostered life there.

    MRO also is on the lookout for places where robot explorers could land on Mars. The probe's primary mission ends in 2010, but it may have enough fuel to work until 2014.

    NASA will launch Phoenix Mars Scout in 2007 to look for organic chemicals, and Mars Science Laboratory in 2009.

    High speed data transmission. For the second phase of its mission, MRO will work as a communications relay between Earth and other robot explorers on Mars.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has the largest communications antenna ever carried to Mars. The spacecraft can transmit ten times as much data per minute as any previous Mars spacecraft.

    MRO already has transmitted information at a rate of 6 megabits of data per second. At that speed, it could fill a CD-ROM in about a quarter-hour.

    MRO is expected to return several times more data about the Red Planet than all previous Mars missions combined, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena California.

    That data will include detailed observations of the Martian surface, subsurface and atmosphere by the instruments on the orbiter and enable data relay from other landers on the Martian surface to Earth.

    Scientists back home on Earth will use the data to study the history and distribution of Martian water. Learning more about what has happened to the water will assist the ongoing search for possible past or present Martian life.

    Observations by MRO also will help future Mars missions by finding and examining potential landing sites and providing a communications relay between the Martian surface and Earth.

    Adding to the album. Previous spacecraft that have flown by, orbited or landed on Mars have sent tens of thousands of images back to Earth. Even so, only 2 percent of the Red Planet has been seen at high resolution.

    MRO joined a trio of spacecraft currently orbiting around Mars – Mars Express, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Global Surveyor.

    The two-ton MRO carries some of the most sophisticated science instruments ever flown in space, including a telescopic camera that will record the sharpest images yet of the planet's surface.

    Search for water. The orbiter is seeking evidence of water on the surface and sites where future robot explorers can land. It also acts as a communications relay for data headed to Earth.

    The mission is analyzing the surface at new scales to follow hints of water detected in images from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, and to bridge the gap between surface observations and measurements from orbit.

    The spacecraft's scientific objectives include: Science instruments. As MRO begins its work in orbit over Mars, the probe's two main science instruments are: The other science instruments and spacecraft engineering systems: Sharad radar sounder. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) plans to contribute a Sharad sounding radar to search for subsurface water and ice. From orbit over the Red Planet, the sounder provides data with a vertical resolution of 3.28-32.8 ft. That is an order of magnitude better than the Marsis instrument that Italy is furnishing for Europe's Mars Express probe launched in 2003. The radar has a horizontal resolution of 600-3,000 ft.

    Other instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are experiments flying again after the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter mission. In fact, MRO follows clues in hopes of finding where previously lost landers – the U.S. Mars Polar Lander and the U.K. Beagle 2 – might be.

    Launch to Mars. NASA launched MRO on August 12, 2005, on an Atlas-5 rocket from pad SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

    Launch of the MRO had been scrubbed on August 10 and 11. It took off at the scheduled moment on August 12.

    For trips from Earth to Mars, the planets move into good position relative to each other for only a short period every 26 months.

    The best launch position, which MRO used, is when Earth is about to overtake Mars in their concentric orbit "racing lanes" around the Sun.

    Falling into orbit. As it approached the Red Planet, MRO fired its engines to slow down so it could be captured by the planet's gravity. Earlier, when MRO was halfway along its 310-million-mile route to the Red Planet at the end of November 2005, it had fired its six engines for 20 seconds to adjust its flight path. The trajectory was perfected with two more firings before the probe arrived at Mars.

    A decade's work. MRO has sufficient fuel to maintain its operations at Mars through 2015.

    Team approach. The 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft is an integrated scientific-observation platform that brought together teams from universities, industry, NASA centers and other organizations. It was built by Lockheed-Martin Astronautics, Denver.

    Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at Washington, D.C. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft and was prime contractor for the project.

    NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida integrated and launched the spacecraft on the the Atlas-5 rocket. Atlas-5 combines a first stage, Russian-built, RD-81 rocket engine with a NASA-designed Centaur upper stage. MRO was the first government launch of a Lockheed Martin's Atlas-5 space rocket.

    NASA has described the mission as an essential "scientific gateway" to the future of landing and sample-return missions at the heart of its Mars exploration program.

    NASA JPL's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter home page »
    NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter home page »

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