Mars's Gravity Captures NASA Spacecraft

March 10, 2006

After a seven-month journey, a NASA spacecraft successfully made orbit around Mars today to the relief of Mission Control.

"I am very relieved," said James Graf, project manager for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

"It was picture perfect. I mean, we could not have scripted something better. As a matter of fact, I think we did script it," he added.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter traveled 310 million miles (500 million kilometers) to reach the red planet.

Today the craft pointed its main thrusters forward and fired them for 27 minutes to slow the probe by 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) an hour.

The maneuver enabled Mars's gravity to capture the spacecraft into an extremely elliptical 35-hour orbit.

This path takes the orbiter from about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the planet's surface at its closest point to about 27,000 miles (43,500 kilometers) at its farthest point.

The spacecraft was behind Mars and out of contact with Earth for a nail-biting half hour during the orbit insertion process.

Scientists packed into Mission Control at JPL erupted into applause and yelled "right on the money" when they received the first signal from the spacecraft at approximately 5:15 p.m. ET.

Confirmation of orbit insertion came about ten minutes later.

Over the next seven months, the orbiter will make 550 dips into the Martian atmosphere—a process known as aerobraking—to shrink the orbit down to a two-day circular loop, allowing for a close-up view of the planet.

The orbiting craft will look for signs of water and possible landing sites for future Mars missions.

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