Mars under the spotlight again

Mar 13, 2006
Mars

Relieved UK scientists are celebrating the news that NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) appears to have smoothly entered Mars orbit on Friday night (March 10th). Entering orbit is one of the most critical times for a space mission and Friday night’s manoeuvre managed to boost the tension for all as it took place on the far side of the Red Planet – so no news of the progress could be received on Earth during the critical phase.

UK scientists, from Oxford, Cardiff and Reading Universities are involved in the Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) instrument – essentially a weather station for Mars. It will profile the atmosphere of Mars detecting vertical variation in temperature, dust and water vapour concentration. Two previous versions of this instrument were lost with the ill-fated Mars Observer and Mars Climate Orbiter missions.

Professor Fred Taylor of Oxford University is delighted to have this nail-biting milestone out of the way. He says “Mars approach and orbit insertion is the most risky part of the mission. That is when we lost the last two spacecraft that were carrying our Climate Sounder instrument to Mars, in 1991 and 1999. Successfully achieving orbit this time means that we will be able to start taking some preliminary observations of the Martian atmosphere as early as 20th March.”

He adds “However, MRO will still be in a very elongated orbit then, and will not achieve the circular orbit from which we get the best observations for another six months. Changing the orbit involves the spacecraft dipping into the upper atmosphere of Mars at its closest approach each orbit, using the drag to reduce its speed a little at a time. This 'aerobraking' is also a risky manoeuvre, but not as heart-stopping as arrival at Mars.”

The main aim of the MRO mission is to seek out the history of water on Mars. This will be accomplished by a suite of six science instruments, 3 engineering experiments and 2 science facility experiments. They will zoom in for extreme close up images of the Martian surface, analyse minerals, look for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere and monitor the daily global weather.

Source: PPARC

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.

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.