What NASA's Mars Orbiter Data Flood Means

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. (Image credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com.)

NASA?s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) may be the baby ofthe fleet of spacecraft currently studying the red planet. But the probe has beennothing short of prolific with its Martian observations and recently surpassedmore than 100 terabits of data.

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

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

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

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

"What is most impressive about all these data is notthe 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 givenus a much deeper understanding of the diversity of environments on Mars todayand 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 primaryscience phase in 2008 and continues investigations of Mars' surface, subsurfaceand atmosphere.

After a series of glitches forced mission managers to putthe spacecraft into safe mode last year, MROwas resurrected in December.

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

The capability to return enormous volumes of data enables MRO'sinstruments to view Mars at unprecedented spatial resolutions. Half theplanet has been covered at 20 feet (6 meters) per pixel, and nearly 1 percentof 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 ofwater on and near the surface of Mars occurred for hundreds of millions ofyears. This activity was at least regional and possibly global in extent,though possibly intermittent.

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

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Space.com Staff
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