Mars Orbiter to Launch August 10

Aug 07, 2005

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft now sits atop its Atlas V rocket ready for launch. The upcoming flight of the powerful booster is the first launch of an Atlas V for NASA.

Image: The encapsulated Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is moved inside the Vertical Integration Facility on Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Image credit: NASA/KSC

This week the rocket undergoes a test of its electrical systems to ensure all components are functioning for liftoff. Following the test, mission managers will meet for a Flight Readiness Review on Aug. 4 and Launch Readiness Review on Aug. 8 before starting the final countdown to launch.

NASA's next mission to Mars will examine the red planet in unprecedented detail from low orbit and provide more data about the intriguing planet than all previous missions combined. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its launch vehicle are nearing final stages of preparation at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., for a launch opportunity that begins Aug. 10.

The spacecraft will examine Martian features ranging from the top of the atmosphere to underground layering. Researchers will use it to study the history and distribution of Martian water. It will also support future Mars missions by characterizing landing sites and providing a high-data-rate communications relay.

"Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the next step in our ambitious exploration of Mars," said NASA's director, Mars Exploration Program, Science Mission Directorate, Douglas McCuistion. "We expect to use this spacecraft's eyes in the sky in coming years as our primary tools to identify and evaluate the best places for future missions to land."

The spacecraft carries six instruments for probing the atmosphere, surface and subsurface to characterize the planet and how it changed over time. One of the science payload's three cameras will be the largest-diameter telescopic camera ever sent to another planet. It will reveal rocks and layers as small as the width of an office desk. Another camera will expand the present area of high-resolution coverage by a factor of 10. A third will provide global maps of Martian weather.

The other three instruments are a spectrometer for identifying water-related minerals in patches as small as a baseball infield; a ground-penetrating radar, supplied by the Italian Space Agency, to peer beneath the surface for layers or rock, ice and, if present, water; and a radiometer to monitor atmospheric dust, water vapor and temperature.

Two additional scientific investigations will analyze the motion of the spacecraft in orbit to study the structure of the upper atmosphere and the Martian gravity field.

"We will keep pursuing a follow-the-water strategy with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter," said Dr. Michael Meyer, Mars exploration chief scientist at NASA Headquarters. "Dramatic discoveries by Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and the Mars Exploration Rovers about recent gullies, near-surface permafrost and ancient surface water have given us a new Mars in the past few years. Learning more about what has happened to the water will focus searches for possible Martian life, past or present."

Dr. Richard Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project scientist for the orbiter, said, "Higher resolution is a major driver for this mission. Every time we look with increased resolution, Mars has said, 'Here's something you didn't expect. You don't understand me yet.' We're sure to find surprises."

The orbiter will reach Mars in March 2006. It will gradually adjust the shape of its orbit by aerobraking, a technique that uses the friction of careful dips into the planet's upper atmosphere. For the mission's 25-month primary science phase, beginning in November 2006, the planned orbit averages about 190 miles above the surface, more than 20 percent lower than the average for any of the three current Mars orbiters. The lower orbit adds to the ability to see Mars as it has never been seen before.

To get information from its instruments to Earth, the orbiter carries the biggest antenna ever sent to Mars and a transmitter powered by large solar panels. "It can send 10 times as much data per minute as any previous Mars spacecraft," said JPL's James Graf, project manager. "This increased return multiplies the value of the instruments by permitting increased coverage of the surface at higher resolution than ever before. The same telecommunications gear will be used to relay critical science data to Earth from landers."

To loft so big a spacecraft, weighing more than two tons fully fueled, NASA will use a powerful Atlas V launch vehicle for the first time on an interplanetary mission.

The mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Up, up and away, in the name of science education

Related Stories

Automated ion analyzer for space missions

Jun 18, 2015

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is scheduled to launch its Eu:CROPIS research satellite into orbit in early 2017. Its purpose is to test a biological life-support system for future human space missions. ...

'Hello Earth!': Comet probe Philae wakes up

Jun 14, 2015

The European space probe Philae woke up overnight after nearly seven months in hibernation as it hurtled towards the Sun on the back of a comet, mission control said Sunday.

A timeline of comet probe's 11-year journey

Jun 14, 2015

The European Space Agency said Sunday that its comet lander Philae has woken up from hibernation and managed to send data back to Earth for the first time in seven months. The probe went quiet on Nov. 15, thr ...

Japan announces plans to send probe to Martian moon

Jun 12, 2015

Japan's space agency JAXA has announced its intention to send a spacecraft to one of Mar's moons, collect a sample from its surface and then return to Earth to allow for analyzing the sample. If successful, ...

Recommended for you

Up, up and away, in the name of science education

10 hours ago

US researchers extol the virtues of high-altitude balloons for science education in a research paper published in the International Journal of Learning Technology. According to Jeremy Straub of the University of North Dakota ...

New plan proposed to send humans to Mars

11 hours ago

A new, cost-constrained U.S. strategy to send humans on Mars, could be achieved within projected NASA budgets by minimizing new developments and relying mainly on already available or planned NASA assets. ...

'Cause unknown' in SpaceX rocket blast

13 hours ago

SpaceX came up empty Monday in its search to figure out why an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket exploded minutes after blasting off from a NASA launchpad with a load of space-bound cargo.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.