CBSN

No sign of slowing down as Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter turns 10

It has snapped images of valleys cut into Mars, spotted volcanoes on the red planet and discovered Martian ice sheets.

Over the past decade, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been critical to revealing the planet's diversity and activity, returning more data about Mars every week than all six other missions currently active there.

And on Wednesday, it celebrated its 10th birthday. The landmark comes just weeks after the Curiosity rover celebrated three years on the surface of Mars.

In the decade since its launch, "Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of diverse watery environments on early Mars, some more habitable than others," said the mission's project scientist, Rich Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"MRO has discovered that Mars' south polar cap holds enough buried carbon-dioxide ice to double the planet's current atmosphere if it 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 activity such as moving dunes, 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."

Ten years into its mission, the orbiter is showing no signs of slowing down. It can't afford to.

The galactic workhorse is playing a critical role in NASA's Journey to Mars planning. Images from the orbiter, revealing details as small as just a few square feet, aid the analysis of potential landing sites for the 2016 InSight lander and Mars 2020 rover. Data from Reconnaissance will also be used as part of NASA's newly announced process to examine and select candidate sites where humans may first explore the Martian surface in the 2030s.

"Ten years after launch, MRO continues 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 journey began back on Aug. 12, 2005, when an Atlas V rocket launched the orbiter on an early Florida morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, propelling it on a course toward Mars.

"The most crucial event after launch was orbit insertion on March 10, 2006," said JPL's Dan Johnston, MRO project manager. "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."

After that, Johnston said "we had nearly five months of aerobraking - using controlled friction of more than 400 dips into the upper fringe of the atmosphere - to shrink the orbit to a nearly circular shape."

The science mission for Reconnaissance started in November 2006 and lasted for one Mars year, equivalent to about two Earth years. The orbiter has used six instruments to examine Mars' surface, subsurface and atmosphere. The spacecraft has been orbiting Mars at an altitude of about 186 miles above the red planet, passing near the north and south poles about 12 times a day.

The InSight mission will place a lander on Mars to investigate the deep interior of the planet for clues about the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth. A maneuver two weeks ago altered MRO's orbit, as planned, to put it in position to provide communication support for InSight's Sept. 28, 2016 landing.

  • Michael Casey

    Michael Casey covers the environment, science and technology for CBSNews.com