The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the largest orbiter aimed at Mars in the last 30 years, is now sending back spectacular high resolution images.
Launched on Aug. 12 of last year, it reached Mars and began orbiting on March 10th. The 22 foot high (six meters) spacecraft dwafts the earlier Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey (size comparison).
The ill-fated Mars Observer was lost just before Mars arrival in August 1993 while the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in September 1999 when one engineering team thought metric while another figured in English units.
“This is a big mission for us,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “It’s the most powerful suite of instruments ever sent to another planet.”
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can transmit data to earth (62 million miles away), at rates as high as 6 megabits per second, using its high-gain, 3-meter (10-foot) dish. That rate is ten times higher than previous Mars orbiters. Over its two-year primary science mission, the spacecraft is predicted to transmit more than 34 Terabits.
The orbiter’s radio operates in the X-band, around 8 Gigahertz. Two low-gain antennas are mounted on the high-gain antenna dish – one on the front side and one on the back — so that communication is possible at all times. The X-band radio (and backup) transmits 100 watts while a Ka-band radio transmits at 35 watts.
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. Electra allows the spacecraft to act as a relay between the earth and landed crafts on Mars, which may not have sufficient radio power to communicate directly with earth.
Innovative instrumentation packages include the Optical Navigation Camera (ONC), a detector on the Mars Climate Sounder (MCS), and the KaBand Telecommunications experiment. The instruments were built at the University of Arizona, Tucson; at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; at the Italian Space Agency, Rome; at Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, Calif.; and at JPL.
|The spacecraft carries six science instruments, three engineering instruments, and two more science-facility experiments.|
|During its two-year primary science mission, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will conduct eight different science investigations at Mars. The investigations are functionally divided into three purposes: global mapping, regional surveying, and high-resolution targeting of specific spots on the surface.|
|HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment)|
|This visible camera can reveal small-scale objects in the debris blankets of mysterious gullies and details of geologic structure of canyons, craters, and layered deposits (latest photos).|
|CTX (Context Camera)|
|This camera will provide wide area views to help provide a context for high-resolution analysis of key spots on Mars provided by HiRISE and CRISM.|
|MARCI (Mars Color Imager)|
|This weather camera will monitor clouds and dust storms.|
|CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars)|
|This instrument splits visible and near-infrared light of its images into hundreds of “colors” that identify minerals, especially those likely formed in the presence of water, in surface areas on Mars not much bigger than a football field.|
|MCS (Mars Climate Sounder)|
|This atmospheric profiler will detect vertical variations of temperature, dust, and water vapor concentrations in the Martian atmosphere.|
|SHARAD (Shallow Radar)|
|This sounding radar will probe beneath the Martian surface to see if water ice is present at depths greater than one meter.|
|Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will carry three instruments that will assist in spacecraft navigation and communications.|
|Electra UHF Communications and Navigation Package|
|Electra allows the spacecraft to act as a communications relay between the Earth and landed crafts on Mars that may not have sufficient radio power to communicate directly with Earth by themselves.|
|Optical Navigation Camera|
|This camera is being tested for improved navigation capability for future missions. 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 spacecraft as they near Mars.|
|Ka-band Telecommunications Experiment Package|
|Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will test the use of a radio frequency called Ka-band to demonstrate the potential for greater performance in communications using significantly less power.|
|Science Facility Experiments:|
|Two additional science investigations will be carried out using engineering data.|
|Gravity Field Investigation Package|
|By tracking the orbiter in the primary science phase, team members will be able to map the gravity field or Mars to understand the geology of the surface and near-surface and the geophysical processes that produce these land features. For example, analysis could reveal how the planet’s mass is redistributed as the Martian polar caps form and dissipate seasonally.|
|Atmospheric Structure Investigation Accelerometers|
|Data will be collected from accelerometers. During aerobraking, the accelerometers will help scientists understand the structure of the Martian atmosphere.|
|The Interplanetary Internet – Cancelled|
| Four years after NASA launched Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the space agency hoped to extend the Internet to Mars by launching the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter (MTO) in 2009.
MTO would arrive in a high orbit over Mars in 2010. From there, it would serve as an Internet hub, receiving a flood of science information as data packets from a growing fleet of Mars probes, orbiters, landers, rovers and science stations, and relaying them to Earth for as much as ten years.
The interplanetary Internet will link disparate science missions such as Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Europe’s Mars Express Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the future Phoenix Mars Scout and Mars Science Laboratory landers.
MTO not only will send data to Earth via high-speed X-band and Ka-band radio signals, but also via laser light beams. That is expected to bring a tenfold increase in bandwidth.
Orbiting 3,000 miles above the Red Planet, MTO would be in contact with Earth around the clock. That high orbit is 20 times farther from the planet surface than other orbiters. From up there, it will have a direct line of sight to Earth.
While the optical communication signals arriving at Earth will be susceptible to blocking by clouds, they will be able to carry 10,000 times more data than microwave radio signals. MTO will be able to transmit the equivalent of three compact disks of data each day.
But bleak times are ahead for the Telecommunications Orbiter (and other robotic missions like the Mars Sample Return Mission). They were cancelled.
NASA is now giving preference to human spaceflight (as per their military handlers at Boeing and Lockheed).
Merge NASA’s solar system explorations with the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency to do the science. Let Aerospace Corporation, EDS, AeroAstro, Ball, SpaceDev, Orbital, Surrey, MDA and hundreds of other companies bid for contracts, competitively.
– Sam Churchill
The European Space Agency launched The Venus Express (BBC Guide) last year. ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft (below), lifted off from the desert of Kazakhstan on 9 November. Now, after having travelled 400 million kilometres in about five months, the spacecraft is about to reach its final destination.
The rendezvous is due to take place on April 11th. Venus Express plans to fire its main engines for 51 minutes beginning at 3:17 a.m. EDT Tuesday. By the maneuver’s end it’s expected to be flying in an orbit that reaches as close as 248 miles above the Venusian surface.
Venus Express will study the atmosphere, the plasma environment, and the surface of Venus in great detail. It’s controlled from the Mission Operations Centre in Germany, using ESA’s deep space network, using both S- and X-Bands.
| UPDATE: At 0745 GMT, Tuesday morning, with its engine still firing, Venus Express disappeared behind the planet, severing contact between the craft and Earth.
After about 10 minutes, mission controllers picked up the spacecraft’s signal – an early indication that the manoeuvre had worked and it was in orbit around Venus.
Scientists, engineers and officials in the control room clapped, cheered and embraced each other.
The mission includes the Cassini orbiter, which will orbit Saturn and its moons for four years, and the Huygens probe, which was released from the Cassini orbiter and landed on the moon Titan (PBS: NOVA).
Signals from the 20 watt X-band radio package and 4-meter (13.1-foot) dish onboard Cassini travel almost a billion miles to Earth.
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