Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Posted by Sam Churchill on

The biggest spacecraft ever to be sent to Mars – NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this morning on a seven month journey to the red planet.

The $700 million program, which will circle Mars for at least 4 years, is designed to map the planet in unprecedented detail, probe its atmosphere and peer beneath the surface for signs of the water that once flowed across its arid surface. NASA TV should have coverage.

The prime objective: determine the history of water on Mars. A suite of instruments on the orbiting spacecraft, the size of a small van, will zoom-in to capture extreme close-up images of the Martian surface, analyse minerals, look for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere and monitor the daily global weather.

The trip to Mars will take 7 months. When MRO arrives in March, it begins a half-year “aerobraking” process. The MRO will gradually adjust the shape of its orbit by using friction from carefully calculated dips into the top of the Martian atmosphere. MRO’s primary science phase starts in November 2006.

“Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will give us several times more data about Mars than all previous missions combined,” said James Graf, project manager for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena Calif.

It was the first U.S. government mission for Atlas V, using Lockheed’s International Launch Services, which is in competition with Boeing’s Delta IV.

One of the science payload’s three cameras will be the largest-diameter telescopic camera ever sent to another planet (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). It will reveal rocks and layers as small as the width of an office desk. Another camera will expand the present area of high-resolution coverage by a factor of 10. A third will provide global maps of Martian weather.

Other instruments include a ground-penetrating radar supplied by the Italian Space Agency that can peer beneath the surface for layers or rock, ice and, if present, water; Imaging Spectrometers to study the atmosphere in both visible and invisible spectra, and a Climate Sounder to observe the temperature, humidity, and dust content of the martian atmosphere.

The ship will also carry a new-generation navigational camera and communications system, including a Ka-band radio, field-tested for the first time, to check its potential for greater performance in communications using significantly less power.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) is the largest camera ever sent out of Earth s orbit. The camera utilizes a series of mirrors and lenses that project the image onto a cluster of CCDs rendering images with a resolution up to 20,000 pixels by 40,000 lines. Due to the large images produced by the camera, it will take anywhere from 4 to 48 hours to transmit a high-resolution image to Earth.

A 4 Megapixel CCD imaging chip will provide one meter resolution from an eliptical orbit 160×200 miles every 112 minutes. It’s not unlike a 16 Megapixel Canon EOS, with a 600mm f4 lens, controlled from a laptop – except the wireless PC link goes 100 million miles.

The only source of power is sunlight. Some 3,744 individual solar cells are able to convert more than 26% of the sun’s energy directly into electricity. They produce 32 Volts, with the two panels producing 1,000 Watts of power on Mars. They charge two Nickel-Hydrogen rechargeable batteries, each with a capacity of 50 Ampere-hours (at 32 Volts).

A 133 MHz PowerPC processor is used in the Space Flight Computer. While a $60 Linksys WRT-54 might be nearly as fast, space-qualification at NASA takes years and costs a fortune. A Solid State Recorder is the primary storage for science instrument data onboard the spacecraft, with a total capacity of 160 Gigabits.

The craft can transmit to earth at rates as high as 6 megabits per second, about 10 times as much data per minute as any previous Mars spacecraft. This will serve both to convey detailed observations of the Martian surface, subsurface and atmosphere by the instruments on the orbiter and enable data relay from other landers on the Martian surface to Earth.

The orbiter’s radio operates in the X-band of the radio spectrum, at a frequency of around 8 Gigahertz. Also on board is Electra, a UHF telecommunications package that is one of the engineering instruments providing navigation and communications support to landers and rovers on the surface of Mars. A 3-meter (10-foot) dish antenna will send and receiving data to Earth. The X-band radio transmits at a power of 100 watts (with a back up in case the first amplifier fails), while the Ka-band is capable of transmitting at 35 watts.

Mars has been visited over the last decade with 8 missions since 1996. Of these NASA s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, together with the European Space Agency s [ESA] Mars Express, continue to research the Red Planet from orbit, whilst NASA s Mars Exploration RoversSpirit and Opportunity are still crawling over the Martian surface, far exceeding their original 3 month lifespan.

MRO will look for safe landing place for the Phoenix Lander, due to arrive on the far northern martian surface in 2007, and a landing spot for the Mars Science Laboratory, a large, advanced rover scheduled for 2009. NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout rover and Mars Science Laboratory have advanced instrumentation that will look for evidence of life on Mars. NASA may use a radioisotope power source for MSL.

A Radioisotope thermoelectric generator might also be required for manned Moon or Mars programs (or Star Wars). Space-Based Radar might even enable RF-ID tracking from space. NASA will likely get all the money it wants for RTG development under the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, this week Carnegie Mellon University researchers are launching a prototype robotic astrobiologist that will explore the driest desert on Earth to study life in extreme environments.

The team will direct and monitor Zo , an autonomous solar-powered rover developed at Carnegie Mellon, as it travels 180 kilometers in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Zo is equipped with scientific instruments to seek and identify micro-organisms and to characterize their habitats. Solar panels generate 600 watts for the vehicle. It will explore three diverse regions of the desert during its two-month stay, which runs from August 22 to October 22.

Zo will visit a foggy coastal region, the dry Andean altiplano, and an area in the desert’s interior, the most arid region on Earth, receiving no precipitation for decades at a time.

The results of this expedition ultimately may enable future robots to seek life on Mars, as well as enabling the discovery of new information about the distribution of life on Earth.

The search-for-life project was begun in 2003 under NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets, or ASTEP, which concentrates on pushing the limits of technology to study life in harsh environments.

“Our goal with this final investigation is to develop a method to create a real-time, 3D topographic ‘map’ of life at the microscopic level,” said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames and the SETI Institute who heads the science investigation aspects of the project.

At these sites, the rover’s activities will be guided remotely from an operations center in Pittsburgh where the researchers will characterize the environment, seek clear proof of life and map the distribution of various habitats. During last year’s mission, the team carried out experiments using an imager able to detect fluorescence in an area underneath the rover.

Astrobiology Magazine features The Martian Cronciles, a multipart series with Steve Squyres, showing the inside story of the Mars mission. Portland State University’s Sherry Cady (left), an Astrobiologist in Portland, edits the more academic Astrobiology Journal.

After living in the dirt of Mars, a pathogen could see our bodies as a comparable host,” says John Rummel, Planetary Protection Officer for Earth. John Barros thinks extraterrestials should go to the University of Washington for Astrobiology study.

In 2011 NASA plans to bring Martian soil back to Earth. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) wants to stop it.

More research is needed to determine whether potentially dangerous life forms exist on Mars before a manned mission to the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor can go ahead, a NASA advisory panel has warned. ICAMSR warns that “from the years 1347 – 1350, one quarter of the European population died as a result of a flea from China carrying an unfamiliar microbe”.

The Mars Exobiology strategy is being executed with the help of Planetary Protection Officer for Mars, Bill Horsley, who must prevent contamination between Earth and Mars. It’s not immediately clear who resolves jurisdictional disputes between Planetary and Solar System Protection Officers or who calls the shots for extraterrestrial contact.

More information is available at, SpaceNews, Florida Today, Spaceflight Now, World SpaceFlight News, MSN Space, Space Today, Jonathan’s Space Report, Space and Missile Times, Yahoo Space News, Yahoo Full Covergage and Google News.

Related DailyWireless stories include; NASA TV, Canning NASA, Mars: Dead or Alive, Nanotech Under Microscope, Contact?, Mars Updates, Martian Bombshell?, Missions to Mars, Spirit Telecommunications, Beagle 2 systems, Spirit is Willing, the 1999 Mission to Mars, Spirit In Dirt Good News from Mars Genesis Crater, Rocket Welfare, Space Mist, Stealth Satellites, NRO Rides Again, Off Shore Data Links, Telepresence Now, Unwired in Hawaii and Mars: In Living Color.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Thursday, August 11th, 2005 at 3:28 pm .

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