Spaceflight Insider

Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter marks ten years of discovery

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter aerobraking above the surface of the Red Planet NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter “aerobraking” in orbit above the surface of the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA

Since its arrival on March 10, 2006, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has collected more data than any other orbiter to study Mars. According to the NASA facts files for Mars, there are currently seven active missions on the fourth planet from the Sun. Of those seven, MRO returns more data in one week than the other six probes combined.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE image of crater on the surface of Mars. Image Credit NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

An impact crater on the surface of the Red Planet. The exquisite detail in this image was made possible by MRO. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The 2,273 pound (1,031 kg) Lockheed Martin Space Systems-built MRO carries with it six science packages. These include three cameras (HiRISE, CTX, and MARCI), a spectrometer (CRISM), the Mars Climate Sounder, and a radar system (SHARAD). There is also an engineering package consisting of a Doppler radar for pinpointing the craft’s location and the Gravity Field Investigation Package which can measure slight variations in the MRO’s velocity to deduce information on Martian gravity.

Data from MRO was used to help support the case for liquid water on Mars. The paper, published last year, used three of MRO’s capabilities to help further the theory. The first of these was the telescopic camera which is capable of resolving items as narrow as the driveway of a suburban home. The second was image spectroscopy to map surface composition. The third capability was simple longevity. The MRO has remained in orbit around Mars long enough to gather large quantities of data to allow for detection of appreciable changes.

“Updating what’s in the memory is essential for spacecraft safety and for extending the mission,” said MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The equipment on MRO can look at more than just the ground. The spacecraft has identified patterns in the planet’s atmospheric changes, helping to map the weather. It has also discovered underground geologic formations. The data collected has allowed scientists an unprecedented look at how active a planet Mars is today. Additionally, we have confirmed that Mars of the past was a wet and diverse ecosystem. Moreover, we have detected at least three geologic eras occurred on Mars.

Mars_Reconnaissance_Orbiter_solar_panel NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

MRO’s solar array prior to the launch of the spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA / KSC

“This mission has helped us appreciate how much Mars – a planet that has changed greatly over time – continues to change today,” said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the mission.

MRO continues to study Martian planetary activity watching for fresh craters, seasonal freezing, and thawing of carbon dioxide, summertime brine seeps from just below the surface as well as avalanches and dust storms.

In addition to its scientific studies, MRO provides support for both rovers and stationary landers on Mars. The spacecraft provides information of possible routes for rovers to follow as well as acting as a relay for data back to Earth using NASA’s Deep Space Network. The observations made by the MRO help engineers determine the best possible landing sites for future craft. MRO is also working to gather data for future human missions to the Red Planet as part of NASA’s Journey to Mars program.

“The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter remains a powerful asset for studying the Red Planet, with its six instruments all continuing capably a decade after orbit insertion. All this and the valuable infrastructure support that it provides for other Mars missions, present and future, make MRO a keystone of the current Mars Exploration Program,” said Zurek.

MRO entered Mars orbit when it fired its six main engines for nearly 27 minutes, allowing the spacecraft to slow down and be captured by Mars’ gravity. Over the next six months, MRO slowly changed its orbit from elongated 35-hour orbits to its current two-hour orbital period using the atmosphere to slow it down – a process known as aerobraking. That technique changes the orbit from as high as 27,000 miles (43,000 kilometers) to a more favored 155 to 196 miles (250 to 316 kilometers). The large solar panels helped with this braking. With the panels fully extended, the spacecraft has a wingspan as large as a school bus. That surface area created the drag needed MRO traveled through Mars’ tenuous upper atmosphere.

Once the spacecraft was securely in orbit, the 2,000-watt solar panels started providing the power for the science instruments and the data relay system. With plenty of power, MRO has been able to send more than 264 terabits of information back to Earth using its 10-foot wide (3-meter) antenna. That amount of information is more than all other interplanetary missions combined.

Video courtesy of NASA / JPL


Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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