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  • Writer's pictureSven Piper

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Updated: 6 days ago

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is America's response to the European Mars Express space probe, boasting impressive technical specifications. The space probe arrived at the Red Planet in March 2006 and is still ongoing.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter used an Atlas V-401 launch vehicle, the smallest in the Atlas V family, developed by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services. Standing 57 meters tall, this launch vehicle was selected for its ability to deliver large payloads to Mars, providing the necessary performance.

The total vehicle weight at liftoff was about 333,000 kilograms, of which approximately 305,000 kg was fuel. The Atlas V accelerated the spacecraft to about 11,000 meters per second (25,000 miles per hour). Powered by liquid oxygen and RP-1 (similar to kerosene), the RD-180 engine supplied by Russia drove the first stage, which operated for about four minutes, providing about 4 million Newtons of thrust and accelerating the spacecraft to supersonic speeds of about 4500 meters per second (10,000 miles per hour).

Following the completion of the first stage burn, the stage falls back to Earth, typically landing in the Atlantic Ocean. The spacecraft is mounted atop the Centaur upper stage using a 1194-millimeter-diameter Payload Adapter. The Centaur, fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, provides the necessary energy to propel the spacecraft towards Mars.

Instruments on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter include:

  • HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment): A visible camera that reveals small-scale features in the debris blankets of gullies and detailed geologic structures of canyons, craters, and layered deposits.

  • CTX (Context Camera): Provides wide area views to help provide context for high-resolution analyses of key spots on Mars by HiRISE and CRISM.

  • MARCI (Mars Color Imager): Monitors clouds and dust storms.

  • CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars): Splits visible and near-infrared light into hundreds of 'colors' to identify minerals, particularly those likely formed in the presence of water.

  • MCS (Mars Climate Sounder): Detects vertical variations of temperature, dust, and water vapor concentrations in the Martian atmosphere.

  • SHARAD (Shallow Radar): Probes beneath the Martian surface to detect the presence of water ice.

The spacecraft's arrival at Mars involved firing its onboard rockets to decelerate relative to the planet and enter a long, looping orbit, in preparation for its aerobraking maneuvers. The primary science phase began once the orbiter was delivered into its science orbit and its instruments and systems were checked and calibrated, starting in November 2006 and originally ended in November 2008, but was extended on an ongoing basis.

Mission Results:

  • Confirmation of liquid water: The MRO has confirmed that liquid water was present on Mars long ago and that some water activity persisted in Mars's middle ages.

  • Observation of changes: The MRO has watched Mars change day-to-day and year-to-year, with shifting sand dunes, seasonal ice, and the appearance of dust storms, avalanches, new gullies, and craters.

  • Ice and water locations: Knowledge about ice and water locations on Mars could be invaluable for planning future human Mars missions.

  • Data relay: The MRO has played a key role in choosing safe landing sites for the Phoenix lander, Mars Science Laboratory rover, InSight lander, and Mars 2020 rover.

  • Extended mission: The MRO has completed five extended missions and is currently on its sixth.

  • Data transmission: The MRO has transmitted over 450 terabits of data back to Earth.

  • Scientific discoveries: The MRO has made several scientific discoveries, including finding pure water ice in new craters and evidence that water once flowed on the surface of Mars.

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