Sunday, March 12, 2006

A NASA spacecraft set to probe Mars reached orbit around the planet on Friday, joining five others currently active. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter‘s two-year mission is expected to gather more information about Mars than all 12 previous successful missions put together.

The MRO’s tasks will include scouting for possible future landing sites, analyzing the planet’s atmosphere, monitoring its weather, and searching for locations where there may have been water in the distant past. The US$450 million spacecraft is the most advanced probe so far sent to Mars, and can radio back 10 times more data to Earth than any previous probe. Cameras on the MRO can see objects on the planet the size of a card table.

After its seven-month journey toward the planet, reaching orbit was a critical step. Several previous probes have failed due to the difficulty of the precise timing needed to keep the spacecraft from being pulled in by the planet’s gravity. Twenty-one of the thirty-three previous probes have failed for some reason to complete their missions.

Project manager Jim Graf, who described himself as “relieved” at the “picture perfect” completion of this step, expects the results to “rewrite the science textbooks on Mars.” The next step is for the craft to begin “aerobraking” to slow down and change its orbit from elliptical to circular.

The total cost of the mission, including the spacecraft, launch, and support team, is US$720 million.