Orbit Day: Complete Coverage of MRO's Red Planet Arrival

NASA Mars Probe on Target for Orbital Arrival
An artist's interpretation of MRO's orbit insertion burn at Mars on March 10, 2006. (Image credit: NASA/JPL.)

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiterarrived at the red planet on March 10, 2006 in a flawlessapproach that capped a near-perfect transit flight.

The probe launched toward Mars on Aug. 12, 2005,spending seven months in flight before entering Martian orbit.

Equipped with six primary instruments -included the largest camera ever to visit another world - and powered by thebiggest set of solar wings launched on a planetary mission, MRO is expected toscan Mars with more detail than any other mission to date, peer into the planet'swatery past and scout out potential landing sites for future explorers.

Below is SPACE.com's blow-by-blowaccount of how the day's orbit insertion unfolded beginning with the mostrecent update:

UPDATE: 7:55 p.m. EST

MRO project scientistRichard Zurek said that two of the eight science investigations set for NASA'sMars Reconnaissance Orbiter replace ones lost in 1999 aboard the Mars ClimateOrbiter. One other mirrors one that was lost aboard the Mars Observer.

"So this is a veryemotional time for me," Zurek said.

A navigation error sent theMarsClimate Orbiter plunging into Mars' atmosphere, where it burned up, insteadof into a proper orbit in September 1999. Mars Observerwas lost three days before entering orbit around Mars in August 1993.

NASA's post-orbital arrivalbriefing has ended. This concludes SPACE.com's live coverage of theMars Reconnaissance Orbiter's red planet arrival. An updated wrap up of today'sevents will be posted to SPACE.com'shome page shortly.

UPDATE: 7:33 p.m. EST

NASA's post-orbit insertionpress conference for its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has begun.

"It's really great tobe here right now, I've got to tell you," said James Graf, NASA's MROproject manager at JPL. "Today was picture perfect,I though today was a simulation because we were so right on."

SPACE.com's initial wrap up of today's MarsReconnaissance Orbiter red planet arrival is available here.

UPDATE: 5:45 p.m. EST

NASA has ended its livewebcast of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrival at Mars.

The spacecraft successfullyentered orbit around Mars after a 27-minute engine burn that began at 4:24 p.m.EST (2124 GMT).

NASA will hold a pressbriefing on today's MRO arrival at 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 March 11 GMT).

You are invited to watchthe briefing live using SPACE.com'sNASA TV feed, which is available by click the link at left.

UPDATE: 5:45 p.m. EST

NASA's Mars ReconnaissanceOrbiter is now the third U.S orbiter to enter Mars orbit and the fifth NASAprobe to begin simultaneous operations at the red planet.

The probe joins NASA's MarsGlobal Surveyor and Mars Odyssey in orbit and the twin Mars rovers Spirit andOpportunity currently on the planet's surface.Europe's Mars Express orbiter is also actively studying the planet from orbit.

"Now we have apermanent scientific presence around another planet," said Charles Elachi,director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), after MRO entered orbit.

James Graf, MRO projectmanager at JPL, lauded the efforts of his flight control team.

"I'm proud of all ofyou," he said just after MRO's orbital status was confirmed. "It wentpicture perfect...we couldn't have planned it better."

UPDATE: 5:37 p.m. EST

From SPACE.com Senior Space Writer LeonardDavid at Lockheed Martin Space Systems - builders of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) - near Denver, Colorado:

MRO's team of spacecraftbuilders here at Lockheed Martin Space Systems are jubilant, given the wordthat the spacecraft has reemerged from behind Mars relative to Earth. Theacquired signals from the Mars craft confirm that it was right on the money inits burn.

"Mr.O is in orbit," said one observer. "Yeah, for physics!"

The battery power on MRO isat 109 percent, which is terrific, said Steve Jolly, a spacecraft engineer hereat Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

"We still have a long waysto go, but we're set up really well, said Joe Witte Payload Integration Leadfor Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

The process of aerobrakingwill start at end of this month. "We call it toe-dipping," Witte toldSPACE.com.

NASA's Mars ReconnaissanceOrbiter has successfully entered orbit around the red planet, NASA said.

UPDATE: 5:20 p.m. EST

NASA's Mars ReconnaissanceOrbiter has successfully entered orbit around the red planet, NASA said.

Flight controllers atNASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) erupted into applause on NASA Televisionand shouted for joy after receiving confirmation.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiterflight controllers jumped for joy after receiving their first signals fromtheir spacecraft since it passed behind Mars.

The spacecraft has survivedits swing around Mars and flight controllers are checking its telemetry todetermine whether the probe completed its Mars orbit burn successfully.

Several JPL flightcontrollers have shouted that MRO is "right on the money," thoughtelemetry analysis continues.

UPDATE: 5:12 p.m. EST

James Graf, NASA's projectmanager for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission at JPL, said flightcontrollers can only wait to learn if their spacecraft is healthy and on track.

"We are in the dark,we're waiting to see," Graf said.

MRO should have completedthe first part of a small manevuer to point it backtoward the Earth. By 5:16 p.m. (2216 GMT), flight controllers expect to receivetheir first signals from the spacecraft since it past behind Mars.

"That just means it'scalling home," Graf said, adding that it will take several additionalminutes before flight controllers can determine whether MRO is on course and inMars orbit.

UPDATE: 4:54 p.m. EST

According to its flightplan, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter should have finished its orbitalinsertion burn and is coasting around the red planet.

Flight controllers atNASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California and MRO-builderLockheed Martin Space Systems near Denver, Colorado still have more than 20minutes to wait before learning whether the burn was successful.

UPDATE: 4:47 p.m. EST

NASA's Mars ReconnaissanceOrbiter (MRO) has passed behind the red planet and flight controllers on Earthhave lost contact with the probe.

The probe passed behindMars at 4:46:23 p.m. EST (2146:23 GMT), according to flight controllers atNASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Loss of signalwas anticipated and MRO is expected to perform six more mintesof engine burn.

"It looked like itdisappeared at the right time," said Steve Jolly, a Lockheed Martin SpaceSystems engineer at the firm's MRo control centernear Denver, Colorado.

The probe should swingclear of Mars at 5:16 p.m. EST (2216 GMT).

SPACE.com Senior Space Writer Leonard Davidis reporting from Lockheed Martin Space Systems - builders of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO). Staff Writer Tariq Malik iswriting from New York City.

UPDATE: 4:28 p.m. EST

BURN! NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter hasignited its six main engines and started the 27-minute burn to place itself inorbit around the red planet.

At JPL, mission controllerspassed around the traditional jar of peanuts for good luck and erupted intoapplause as burn telemetry reached Earth. There is a 12-minute communicationsdelay between MRO and earth due to the more than 300 million miles separatingthe two worlds.

The maneuver is scheduledto last about 27 minutes, though flight controllers at NASA's Jet PropulsionLaboratory in Pasadena, California and Lockheed Martin Space Systems - whichbuilt the probe - near Denver, Colorado will only be in contact with MRO forthe first 21 minutes.

"This is the firstsense of gravity since the spacecraft was launched," said Joe Witte,Payload Integration Lead for Lockheed Martin Space Systems near Denver,Colorado.

SPACE.com Senior Space Writer Leonard Davidis reporting from Lockheed Martin Space Systems - builders of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO).

UPDATE: 4:20 p.m. EST

From SPACE.com Senior Space Writer LeonardDavid at Lockheed Martin Space Systems - builders of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) - near Denver, Colorado:

MRO has moved itself intothe correct burn attitude, with the burn underway, Joe Witte PayloadIntegration Lead for Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Propulsion engineers hereare keeping a vigil on their monitors as the seconds fly and MRO continues toput on the brakes. Confirmation of the burn, however, is still to come assignals from the spacecraft race across space to Earth controllers.

MRO is expected to igniteits six main engines for today's orbital insertion burn at 4:24 EST (2124 GMT).

UPDATE: 4:16 p.m. EST

From SPACE.com Senior Space Writer LeonardDavid at Lockheed Martin Space Systems - builders of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter - near Denver, Colorado:

MRO's telecom system hastransferred to low-speed mode as planned and NASA's Deep Space Network haslocked onto the low-speed rate. So all continues to be "go" inreadying for the braking of the spacecraft, said Joe Witte Payload IntegrationLead for Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

"Everything isclicking along as expected," Witte said.

UPDATE: 4:10 p.m. EST

NASA reports that its DeepSpace Network stations in Spain and California have picked up the Mars ReconnaissanceOrbiter's (MRO) low-gain antenna signal. NASA is providing access to MRO's doppler signal live here.

At 4:07 p.m. EST (2107GMT), MRO was slated to fire its small thruster jets to turn itself into theproper position for today's orbital insertion burn maneuver. The burn is set tostart just past 4:24 p.m. EST (2124 GMT).

MRO navigation controllersat the Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed that the Mars probe began the turn manevuer.

UPDATE: 4:01 p.m. EST

MRO is less than threeminutes from switching to its low-gain antenna.

UPDATE: 4:00 p.m. EST

MRO has cleared one of itsfirst hurdles in today's Mars orbit insertion process by pressurizing its fueltank with helium.

During the process, twosmall pyrotechnic charges blow to open valves in pencil-thin tubes and allowhelium, a pressurant gas into MRO's fuel tank.

"That was easy,"a flight controller said at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, asapplause broke out.

Meanwhile, SPACE.com Senior Space writer LeonardDavid reports from Lockheed Martin Space Systems near Denver, where engineersanxiously awaited word that MRO's main tank had been pressurized. The firmdesigned and built MRO.

Applause broke out hereafter minutes of ground controllers holding their breath. The signal took 12minutes to reach the control center here.

The key propellant linevalve has opened, with pressure gauges rising to confirm the event.

"The pressurizationhas been confirmed," said Lockheed Martin engineer, Steve Jolly.

"We have pressurized,so everything is go," said Kevin McNeill, program manager at LockheedMartin for MRO. "We are ready to capture into Mars Orbit. Everything isgoing really well," he said.

The next major event forMRO is to switch to its low-gain antenna. The probe's high-gain antenna - a10-foot (three-meter) dish - can transmit signals faster, but must always bepointed at Earth. MRO will instead use its low-gain antenna to maintain continous contact with Earth before passing behind Mars. Weare about 24 minutes from the start of MRO's orbital burn.

UPDATE: 3:45 p.m. EST

From SPACE.com Senior Space Writer LeonardDavid at Lockheed Martin's MRO Control Center in Colorado:

One might think that the Mars rovers - Spirit and Opportunity- have a ring-side seat to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's insertion burnblazing bright in the martiansky.

They do, but the robotswon't be turning their attention upward.

"We looked into this,but it's not possible, unfortunately," said Jim Bell, a Mars roverscientist at Cornell University. Part of the problem, Bell told SPACE.com via email, is that power is solow now on both vehicles - due to winter approaching fast -- that groundcontrollers can't "afford" the night-time operations to try to catchMRO's plume.

"Also, the plume isactually predicted to be pretty dim, though it would be fun and interesting toattempt," Bell added.

UPDATE: 3:30 p.m. EST

NASA's Mars ReconnaissanceOrbiter (MRO) is less than one hour from firing its engines and thrusters in amaneuver to place it in orbitaround Mars. The spacecraft is expected to light its engines at just past4:24 p.m. EST (2124 GMT) for a 27-minute burn.

MRO launchedtoward Mars atop an Atlas 5 rocket on Aug. 12, 2005 and has spent the lastseven months in transit. So far, the spacecraft has performed flawlessly,though orbital insertion is critical to the future of the mission. Live videofrom NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is available via the link at the left.

NASA will be out of contactwith the vehicle for the final six minutes of today's orbital insertion burn,while MRO swings behind Mars, then must wait until 5:16 p.m. EST (2216 GMT)when the probe emerges into range.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.