Mars's Gravity Captures NASA Spacecraft

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Track Record

Doug McCuistion, who heads the Mars program at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said at a pre-insertion briefing today that he can't wait for the scientists to take control of the orbiter.

"They're going to be like a bunch of kids with a new microscope I think, being able to look at things they haven't seen before," he said.

"And I just can't wait to hear all the 'wows' coming from the science community."

Mission Control was relieved at today's success given the space agency's track record: Two of the last four orbiters flown to Mars failed.

In 1993 NASA lost contact with the Mars Observer spacecraft before it entered orbit. In 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost on arrival.

In addition, the Mars Polar Lander was lost as it plunged to the red planet's surface in 1999. And in 2004 the European Space Agency's Beagle 2 lander disappeared after ejection from the Mars Express orbiter.

NASA had better luck with the Mars Global Surveyor, which safely arrived in 1997, and Mars Odyssey, which arrived in 2001. Both orbiters are still operating today.

NASA's rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004, also continue to explore the planet's surface for evidence of a watery past. (Photo: "Mars Rover Still on Task Two Years Later.")

Water Science

Like other recent Mars missions, the U.S. 720-million-dollar Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is designed to look for signs of water, a key ingredient for life.

To help reach this goal, the 2-ton (1.8-metric-ton) orbiter—the largest ever sent to Mars—carries six high-tech instruments designed to study the planet's atmosphere, surface, and underground layers.

Richard Zurek, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist at JPL, said at the pre-insertion briefing that the science phase will begin with the aerobraking at the end of March.

"We're looking at the structure of the upper atmosphere, trying to understand, for instance, how water might be lost to space, how over time that might represent a significant loss of water from the planet," he said.

The two-year primary science mission will begin in November once aerobraking has positioned the spacecraft is in its tightly looping orbit about 190 miles (306 kilometers) above the surface.

Onboard instruments will study the planet's rocks, look for signs of past and present water, and monitor the daily weather. Ten times more data will be beamed back to Earth than from any previous Mars mission.

Communications Relay

In addition to its own science, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will serve as a communications relay for missions headed to the red planet.

The first is the Phoenix spacecraft, scheduled to land on the icy soils near the northern polar ice cap in 2008.

The orbiter will next serve as a relay for the Mars Science Laboratory, a sophisticated rover being developed for a 2009 launch.

Data collected by the orbiter will also aid future missions to Mars by locating possible landing sites.

"What we're really looking for is that sweet spot, where we can go down with other instruments and look for evidence of life," Zurek said at a briefing earlier this week.

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