Fast-Talking NASA Spacecraft Starts Final Approach to Mars

Mar 08, 2006
Artist's concept of Mar Reconnaissance Orbiter near Mars
Artist's concept of Mar Reconnaissance Orbiter near Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has begun its final approach to the red planet after activating a sequence of commands designed to get the spacecraft successfully into orbit.

The sequence began Tuesday and will culminate with firing the craft's main thrusters for about 27 minutes on Friday -- a foot on the brakes to reduce velocity by about 20 percent as the spacecraft swings around Mars at about 5,000 meters per second (about 11,000 miles per hour). Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, are monitoring the events closely.

"We have been preparing for years for the critical events the spacecraft must execute on Friday," said JPL's Jim Graf, project manager. "By all indications, we're in great shape to succeed, but Mars has taught us never to get overconfident. Two of the last four orbiters NASA sent to Mars did not survive final approach."

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will build upon discoveries by five successful robots currently active at Mars: NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity, NASA orbiters Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. It will examine Mars' surface, atmosphere and underground layers in great detail from a low orbit. It will aid future missions by scouting possible landing sites and relaying communications. It will send home up to 10 times as much data per minute as any previous Mars mission.

First, it must get into orbit. The necessary thruster burn will begin shortly after 1:24 p.m. Pacific Time on Friday. Engineers designed the burn to slow the spacecraft just enough for Mars' gravity to capture it into a very elongated elliptical orbit. A half-year period of more than 500 carefully calculated dips into Mars' atmosphere -- a process called aerobraking -- will use friction with the atmosphere to gradually shrink the orbit to the size and nearly-circular shape chosen for most advantageous use of the six onboard science instruments.

"Our primary science phase won't begin until November, but we'll actually be studying the changeable structure of Mars' atmosphere by sensing the density of the atmosphere at different altitudes each time we fly through it during aerobraking," said JPL's Dr. Richard Zurek, project scientist for the mission.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Start of dwarf planet mission delayed after small mix-up

Related Stories

The solar system and beyond is awash in water

Apr 08, 2015

As NASA missions explore our solar system and search for new worlds, they are finding water in surprising places. Water is but one piece of our search for habitable planets and life beyond Earth, yet it links ...

Mars has belts of glaciers consisting of frozen water

Apr 07, 2015

Mars has distinct polar ice caps, but Mars also has belts of glaciers at its central latitudes in both the southern and northern hemispheres. A thick layer of dust covers the glaciers, so they appear as surface ...

The pale blue dot and other 'selfies' of Earth

Apr 06, 2015

Twenty-five years ago a set of images were taken that provided a unique view of Earth and helped highlight the fragility of our existence, and the importance of our stewardship.

A new spin on Saturn's peculiar rotation

Mar 25, 2015

Tracking the rotation speed of solid planets, like the Earth and Mars, is a relatively simple task: Just measure the time it takes for a surface feature to roll into view again. But giant gas planets Jupiter ...

Recommended for you

The riddle of galactic thin–thick disk solved

Apr 24, 2015

A long-standing puzzle regarding the nature of disk galaxies has finally been solved by a team of astronomers led by Ivan Minchev from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), using state-of-the-art ...

Giant cosmic tsunami wakes up comatose galaxies

Apr 24, 2015

Galaxies are often found in clusters, with many 'red and dead' neighbours that stopped forming stars in the distant past. Now an international team of astronomers, led by Andra Stroe of Leiden Observatory ...

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.