Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Blasts Off for Red Planet

NASA's Next Mars Probe Takes Aim at Red Planet
This is an artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter during its critical Mars Orbit Insertion process. In order to be captured into orbit around Mars, the spacecraft must conduct a 25-minute rocket burn when it is just shy of reaching the planet. As pictured, it will pass under the red planet's southern hemisphere as it begins the insertion. Image
(Image: © NASA.)

Story updated at: 2:12 p.m. EDT

NASA's latest roboticmission to further unlock the mysteries of the red planet, the MarsReconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), successfully blasted off Friday, a day after asoftware glitch had scrubbed its initial launch.

The MRO was carried intospace on an Atlas V rocket and is now on a nearly seven-month journey to Mars.The launch had been delayed 24 hours after engineers saw an anomalous readingin the hydrogen propellant loading system on the Atlas V. There was insufficienttime in the launch window to fully investigate the reading. The launch followedthe successful completion Tuesday, August 9 of space shuttle Discovery's mission.

"Needless to say I ambouncing off the walls... and ecstatic," Jim Garvin, NASA chief scientist, saidshortly after MRO roared off its pad into space.

For Garvin, the MRO hasstrong personal resonance as he worked on the mission from "day-zero" back inMay 2000 when it was but a concept initially called the "Mars Science Orbiter".

Now, with the orbiter enroute to the red planet, Garvin said the orbiter is a "scientific searchengine" as well as a planetary monitoring device. 

MRO was designed to be"NASA's google search engine", Garvin said, to cutdown the number of compelling places both at the surface and below the martian landscape that cry out forfuture exploration.

The spacecraft is carrying ahefty science payload to Mars, with six instruments designed to track Martianweather, resolve objects on the surface the size of a kitchen table and measurethe planet's composition and atmospheric structure with more detail than everbefore.

"The MRO spacecraft is manythings," Richard Zurek, the mission's projectscientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told SPACE.comprior to launch. "It's aweather satellite, it's ageological surveyor, and it's a scout for future missions."

"This has been the mostflawless mission any of us can remember being involved in," said Kevin McNeill,MRO program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems during a post-launch pressbriefing. "Every one of the deployments on the spacecraft occurred exactly ontime. It's just incredible," he said.

McNeill said that thespacecraft is in perfect health and two-way communications for command and databetween Earth and MRO have been established.

"We had a flawless sendoffon Atlas. After separation, we acquired signal exactly when we had hoped [from Japan], thesolar arrays deployed right on time, the high gain antenna deployed right ontime...I mean it was like clockwork," McNeill noted. "We're absolutely thrilled."

The orbital spacecraft isexpected to be the vanguard for two landers NASAplans to launch toward Mars in the next five years, and will identify potentiallanding targets. The Phoenixlander is currently scheduled to launch in 2007 andtouchdown in the planet's polar region. A large rover, the Mars ScienceLaboratory, is expected to launch in 2009.

The $720 million mission isdivided into two parts. It should takeMRO about seven months to reach Mars then another seven months or so to slowlyadjust its eccentric orbit around Mars into a 250-mile (400-kilometer) highcircle. The orbiter will use aerobraking to adjustits orbit, swooping in close to Mars and using the atmosphere to slow down.

During its first two years,the orbiter will help build on NASA's knowledge of the history of ice on theplanet. The planet is cold and dry with large caps of frozen water at itspoles. But some scientists think it was a wetter andpossibly warmer place a times eons ago--conditions that might have beenconducive to life.

Furthermore, while MRO wasconceived as a science-driven "observatory" for the "Mars system", it is also atool for preparing for human exploration, Garvin emphasized.

During the second phase ofits mission, the orbiter will serve as a communications messenger between therobotic explorers on Mars and Earth. The reconnaissance orbiter has a powerfulantenna that can transmit 10 times more data per minute than the current trioof satellites positioned around the planet--NASA's Global Surveyor and MarsOdyssey and the European Space Agency's Mars Express.

Two NASA rovers launched in2003,Spirit and Opportunity, continue to roam theplanet and may be the first robots to relay information back to Earth via thereconnaissance orbiter.

The orbiter is loaded withtwo cameras that will provide high-resolution images and global maps of Martianweather, a spectrometer that will identify water-related minerals and aradiometer to measure atmospheric dust. The Italian Space Agency has providedground-penetrating radar that will peer beneath the surface of layers of rocksor ice.

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