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: Is there a statistical bias to the orientation of spiral galaxies?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Catching the planets and new views of Mars

Sep 25, 2014

Looking west after sunset on Friday September 26, the thin waxing crescent moon forms a triangle with Mercury and Spica, the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo. You can see how far Mercury has ...

Sandblasting winds shift Mars' landscape

18 hours ago

High winds are a near-daily force on the surface of Mars, carving out a landscape of shifting dunes and posing a challenge to exploration, scientists said Tuesday.

US-India to collaborate on Mars exploration

13 hours ago

The United States and India, fresh from sending their own respective spacecraft into Mars' orbit earlier this month, on Tuesday agreed to cooperate on future exploration of the Red Planet.

Indian spacecraft on course to enter Mars orbit (Update)

Sep 23, 2014

India will soon know if its first interplanetary mission will achieve its goal, when a spacecraft built with homegrown technology for a remarkably low price tag of $75 million begins its final maneuvers into ...

Why is everyone vying for a piece of Mars?

Sep 24, 2014

The red planet is about to welcome a new visitor: India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) started orbiting Mars on September 24. But MOM is not the only new kid in town. The American MAVEN explorer arrived at ...

Recommended for you

Wild ducks take flight in open cluster

28 minutes ago

The Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile has taken this beautiful image, dappled with blue stars, of one of the most star-rich open clusters currently ...

Image: The Pillars of Creation

59 minutes ago

The Pillars of Creation (seen above) is an image of a portion of the Eagle nebula (M16) taken by Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. It soon became one of the most iconic space images of all time. The Eagle nebula ...

Student to live in simulated space habitat

1 hour ago

A Purdue University industrial engineering doctoral student is among six "crew members" spending the next eight months in a domed habitat on a volcanic landscape mimicking life on a Martian outpost.

The wake-up call that sent hearts racing

4 hours ago

"But as the minutes ticked by, the relaxed attitude of many of us began to dissolve into apprehension. Our levels of adrenaline and worry began to rise."

Swift mission observes mega flares from a mini star

13 hours ago

On April 23, NASA's Swift satellite detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series ...

User comments : 0