What NASA's Mars Orbiter Data Flood Means
How much is 100 terabits? This graphic compares the 100 terabits of data collected by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with other data storage mediums commonly used on Earth.
Credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com.

NASA?s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) may be the baby of the fleet of spacecraft currently studying the red planet. But the probe has been nothing short of prolific with its Martian observations and recently surpassed more than 100 terabits of data.

That number, announced by NASA recently, doesn't mean much to most of us, so SPACE.com has calculated what 100 terabits are in various more everyday measures.

Altogether, 100 terabits is 100 trillion bits of information and would take up 17,000 700MB CDs. That would be about 4 million songs, with each lasting about three minute - quite the album collection.

The data generated by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has generated is also more than three times the amount of data from all other deep-space missions combined ? not just the ones to Mars, but every mission that has flown past the orbit of Earth's moon.

But the amount of data isn't the only thing impressive about the mission's achievement.

"What is most impressive about all these data is not the sheer quantity, but the quality of what they tell us about our neighbor planet," said MRO project scientist Rich Zurek, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The data from the orbiter's six instruments have given us a much deeper understanding of the diversity of environments on Mars today and how they have changed over time."

The spacecraft entered orbit around Mars in March 2006, following an Aug. 12, 2005, launch from Florida. It completed its primary science phase in 2008 and continues investigations of Mars' surface, subsurface and atmosphere.

After a series of glitches forced mission managers to put the spacecraft into safe mode last year, MRO was resurrected in December.

MRO's antenna can beam data to Earth at a rate of up to 6 megabits per second.

The capability to return enormous volumes of data enables MRO's instruments to view Mars at unprecedented spatial resolutions. Half the planet has been covered at 20 feet (6 meters) per pixel, and nearly 1 percent of the planet has been observed at about 1 foot (30 centimeters) per pixel, sharp enough to discern objects the size of a desk.

Among the mission's major findings is that the action of water on and near the surface of Mars occurred for hundreds of millions of years. This activity was at least regional and possibly global in extent, though possibly intermittent.

The spacecraft has also observed that signatures of a variety of watery environments, some acidic, some alkaline, increase the possibility that there are places on Mars that could reveal evidence of past life, if it ever existed.