NASA’s Mars Orbiter completes two-year mission

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NASA's Mars Orbiter completes two-year mission

Pasadena (CA) – After two years of scientific research conducted from a stable Mars orbit some 186 miles above the planet’s surface, over 9 TB of data have been beamed back by the Mars Orbiter. Having now successfully completed its primary mission, the spacecraft has already found strong evidence of a complex Martian history with a watery past and indications of climate change over hundreds of millions of years.

Science phase

The orbiter specifically conducted over 10,000 targeted observations of high-priority areas. It has imaged nearly 40% of the Martian surface at a resolution that would reveal house-sized objects in detail (slightly less detail than the satellite views seen by Google Earth and other similar tools), and 1% of the surface at images able to see details on objects the size of an average office desk.

The orbiter has also created a nearly 700-day long weather report complete with temperature profiles, radar images of the surface, subsurface and polar caps. In addition, it captured more than 60% of Mars using “mineral mapping bands at stadium-size resolutions.”

Many of the images were recorded at specific locations designed to create stereo images of specific areas. These not only help create image-based 3D topography, but also augment the types of images taken by previous missions to Mars.

According to Richard Zurek, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist, “These observations are now at the level of detail necessary to test hypotheses about when and where water has changed Mars and where future missions will be most productive as they search for habitable regions on Mars.”

In one popular photo, the Mars Orbiter captured the Mars rover Opportunity when it was on the rim of Victoria Crater. The Mars Lander Phoenix was also seen during its descent to the surface. In fact, the Mars Orbiter data allows NASA scientists to alter the final landing location for Phoenix while it was already en route to the red planet. The Orbiter has also performed proxy operations along with Odyssey (another satellite in Mars orbit), sending back data from Phoenix after it landed.

Some of the data sent back to NASA is also being factored in to determine the location NASA will use for its Mars Science Laboratory project, which is scheduled for launch in 2011.

Climate changes

The Mars Orbiter has observed signs of “repetitive layering in Mars’ permanent polar ice caps.” According to NASA, these patterns suggest long running climate cycles that are also ongoing even today. The further suggest possible effects due to a tilt in Mars’ orbit. Radar detections made of sub-surface ice deposits close to the equator have revealed near-surface ice that is not stable. Additional signs of “ancient streambeds, atmospheric hazes and motions of water, along with the ever-changing weather on Mars” have also been reported.

Next phase

The sun will soon pass between Mars and the Earth making communications between the two planets difficult due to interference. There are currently no craft in space which can re-route communications around the sun. As a result, the Mars Orbiter will be forced to shutdown for a few weeks. Then, beginning near the end of December a new phase of additional scientific research will begin. It will continue for approximately two years until Mars completes one more orbit around the sun.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, states, “This spacecraft truly exemplifies the best in capabilities to support science and other Martian spacecraft activities. MRO has exceeded its own goals and our expectations. We look forward to more discoveries as we continue to look at the Red Planet in spectacular detail.”

The Martian day is almost the same length as that of the Earth. It is 24 hr 39 min 35.244 sec. The year is notably longer though at 1 yr 320 days 18.2 hours (1.8809 years). Its orbit varies between 207 million and 249 million kilometers. The planet is orbiting the sun at 86,677 km/h, compared to Earth’s 107,218 km/h.

Mars has an axial tilt which is 25.19 degrees, compared to the Earth’s 23.44 degrees. Its mass is 6.42 * 1023 kg, compared to Earth’s 5.97 * 1024 kg. Gravity on Mars is roughly one-third that of the Earth (0.376 g). Escape velocity is 5.027 km/s compared to the Earth’s 11.186 km/s.

The average Martian temperature varies between -87 degrees C to -5 degrees C. It is 0.532x the size of the Earth, with an average radius of 3386 km compared to the Earth’s 6371 km.

Mars is well within the “Habitable Zone” where Earth-like life could be supported. Were its atmosphere somewhat different, Mars could exhibit many atmospheric and temperature traits similar to those of the Earth.