NASAâ€™s latest unmanned Mars probe, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is nearing its destination. On March 10th, MRO will fire its rocket engine to slow down and become a satellite of Mars. MROâ€™s primary mission is to search for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. While other Mars missions have shown that water flowed across the surface in Mars' history, it remains a mystery whether water was ever around long enough to provide a habitat for life.
MRO was launched August 12th, 2005 and has spent the last seven months journeying from Earth to Mars. When it arrives at Mars orbit on March 10th, the orbiterâ€™s engine firing will be the start of a 6-month process that will use MROâ€™s large solar panels and the drag of the Martian atmosphere to transform MROâ€™s orbit from elliptic to circular in a process called aerobraking. Once the orbit is circular MROâ€™s primary 5-year mission will begin.
The MRO orbiter will survey the surface of Mars with a variety of instruments. There will be cameras to image both the surface of Mars and the Martian weather onboard as well as radar to image the subsurface of Mars for ice and water, a mineral-mapper for finding water-related mineral deposits and an infrared sounder to monitor temperatures and the movement of water vapor in the Martian atmosphere."We're especially interested in water, whether it's ice, liquid or vapor," said Richard Zurek, Jet Propulsion Laboratory orbiter project scientist. "Learning more about where the water is today and where it was in the past will also guide future studies about whether Mars ever supported life."
A secondary mission of MRO is to serve as a communications and navigation relay for current and futures Mars probes. Communications through a 10-foot diameter dish antenna using the Ka-band radio frequency will be at data rates 10-times what is currently available. Numerous future international spacecraft on and around Mars back to Earth. Missions such as the Phoenix Mars Scout and Mars Science Laboratory rover will communicate with their earth-based controllers and scientists through an â€śinterplanetary internetâ€ť relayed through MRO.
The orbiter also carries an experimental navigation camera. If it performs well, similar cameras placed on orbiters of the future would be able to serve as high-precision interplanetary "eyes" to guide incoming landers to precise landings on Mars, opening up exciting - but otherwise dangerous - areas of the planet to exploration.