Space exploration has come a long way in the past decade as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has just turned 10 years old this Wednesday. The MRO is the most significant Mars mission as it had revealed far more data about Mars than all other missions currently active there.
In the past decade, the MRO has snapped images of valleys, volcanoes and ice sheets on the red planet. “Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of diverse watery environments on early Mars, some more habitable than others,” said Rich Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the mission’s project scientist.
“MRO has discovered that Mars’ south polar cap holds enough buried carbon-dioxide ice to double the planet’s current atmosphere if it is warmed” he said. “It’s caught avalanches and dust storms in action. The spacecraft’s longevity has made it possible to study seasonal and longer-term changes over four Martian years. These studies document activities such as moving dues, freshly excavated impact craters – some which expose subsurface ice – and mysterious strips that darken and fade with the seasons and are best explained as brine flows.”
Even after 10 years of successful operation, the orbiter is still functional and will be so in the coming years. “Ten years after launch, MRO continues the full science and relay operations,” said Kevin Gilliland, spacecraft engineer for the mission at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. “We’ve been able to bring back an astonishing amount of science data – more than 250 terabits so far. Even after more than 40,000 orbits, the mission remains exciting, with new challenges such as taking close-up images of a passing comet last year and supporting next year’s InSight landing.”
The MRO is playing an important and very significant role in in NASA’s Journey to Mars planning. Images from the orbiter helps the NASA scientists to analyze the data and decide potential landing sites for the 2016 InSight lander and Mars 2020 rover. It is also helping scientists to shortlist sites on Mars, where humans can first explore in the coming years.
The orbiter was launched 10 years ago on August 12, 2005 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft orbits the Mars from an altitude of 186 miles.
“The most crucial event after launch was orbit insertion on March 10, 2006,” said MRO project manager Dan Johnston. “The 27-minute burn of the spacecraft’s main engines, necessary for orbit capture, was scheduled for completion while the spacecraft was behind Mars, so we had to wait in suspense for confirmation that it went well. It did.”
All in all, the NRO has been a promising venture of NASA and continue to be so it’s data will help the upcoming InSight mission, which will investigate the deep interiors of the red planet for clues about the formation and evolution of all rocky planets like Earth. The mission, if go as planned, will land the Mars on September 28, 2016.
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