Dwayne Brown (202) 358-1726
Merrilee Fellows (818) 393-0754
NASA Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster (818) 354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Robotic NASA Craft Begins Orbiting Mars for Most-Detailed Exam
March 10, 2006
With a crucially timed firing of its main engines today, NASA's new
mission to Mars successfully put itself into orbit around the red
The spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, will provide more science
data than all previous Mars missions combined.
Signals received from the spacecraft at 2:16 p.m. Pacific Time after it
emerged from its first pass behind Mars set off cheers and applause in
control rooms at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.,
at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.
"This is a great milestone to have accomplished, but it's just one of
many milestones before we can open the champagne," said Colleen
deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
"Once we are in the prime science orbit, the spacecraft will perform
observations of the atmosphere, surface, and subsurface of Mars in
The spacecraft traveled about 500 million kilometers (310 million
to reach Mars after its launch from Florida on Aug. 12, 2005. It needed
to use its main thrusters as it neared the planet in order to slow
itself enough for Mars' gravity to capture it. The thruster firing
while the spacecraft was still in radio contact with Earth, but needed
to end during a tense half hour of radio silence while the spacecraft
flew behind Mars.
"Our spacecraft has finally become an orbiter," said JPL's Jim Graf,
project manager for the mission. "The celebration feels great, but it
will be very brief because before we start our main science phase, we
still have six months of challenging work to adjust the orbit to the
right size and shape."
For the next half-year, the mission will use hundreds of carefully
calculated dips into Mars' atmosphere in a process called
This will shrink its orbit from the elongated ellipse it is now flying,
to a nearly circular two-hour orbit. For the mission's principal
phase, scheduled to begin in November, the desired orbit is a nearly
circular loop ranging from 320 kilometers (199 miles) to 255 kilometers
(158 miles) in altitude, lower than any previous Mars orbiter. To go
directly into such an orbit instead of using aerobraking, the mission
would have needed to carry about 70 percent more fuel when it launched.
The instruments on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will examine the planet
from this low-altitude orbit. A spectrometer will map water-related
minerals in patches as small as a baseball infield. A radar instrument
will probe for underground layers of rock and water. One telescopic
camera will resolve features as small as a card table. Another will put
the highest-resolution images into broader context. A color camera will
monitor the entire planet daily for changes in weather. A radiometer
will check each layer of the atmosphere for variations in temperature,
water vapor and dust.
"The missions currently at Mars have each advanced what we know about
the presence and history of water on Mars, and one of the main goals
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is to decipher when water was on the
and where it is now," said JPL's Dr. Richard Zurek, project scientist
for the mission. "Water is essential for life, so that will help focus
future studies of whether Mars has ever supported life."
The orbiter can radio data to Earth at up to 10 times the rate of any
previous Mars mission. Besides sending home the pictures and other
information from its own investigations, it will relay data from
missions, including NASA's Phoenix Mars Scout scheduled for launch in
2007 and Mars Science Laboratory in development for 2009.
Additional information about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is available
The mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute
Technology, Pasadena, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate,
Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime
contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.