The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a polyfunctional spacecraft launched by NASA on Aug. 12, 2005, to study Mars while orbiting it. It has been one of the most advanced missions to the Red Planet, revolutionizing our understanding of Mars.
Get ready for the holiday!
The first task of this new probe, which still smelled like a new car, was to understand better the Mars climate and the possible presence of water.
In addition, MRO helped to study the surface in search of possible landing sites for future Martian missions. Its favorable position has also been widely used to provide a broadband transmission channel between the Earth and the Red Planet, simplifying communications.
Launched in 2005 on board a United Space Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket, the spacecraft traveled for seven and a half months to arrive at its destination after performing four orbital correction maneuvers.
After making one last correction in Sept. 2006, the spacecraft reached its final destination, an almost circular orbit at an altitude between 250 and 316 km. Although an expected operational life of just two years, everything is still working nowadays.
Optical engineering masterpiece
The MRO is equipped with a suite of scientific instruments allowing it to study Mars in unprecedented detail. One of the most important instruments on board is the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), which can capture images of Mars with a resolution of up to 25cm per pixel.
It is the most powerful ever employed in a space mission. It can receive color images in red, green, blue, and infrared bands. This means that the MRO can identify objects on Mars as small as a coffee cup on a table!
Multiple tools like a Swiss Army knife
In addition to HiRISE, the MRO has other instruments that allow it to study the planet’s surface, atmosphere, and subsurface. The Context Camera (CTX) can capture images of Mars with a resolution of up to 8 m per pixel.
The CTX is designed to work in conjunction with the other imaging tools to provide the context of the maps that are being captured by the other tools.
The Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) is a 9-channel spectrometer operating in the visible and infrared, it can measure the temperature, humidity, and dust content of the Martian atmosphere.
The Shallow Radar (SHARAD) was designed to study the interior of the Martian poles. it can penetrate up to a kilometer below the Martian surface, allowing it to study the planet’s geology and search for subsurface water and ice.
SHARAD operates using radio waves with frequencies between 10 and 30 MHz. It has a vertical resolution of 7 m and an analysis depth of 1 km. Moreover, is designed to operate in conjunction with MARSIS, the radar of ESA’s Mars Express probe.
Numerous other instruments are also present on board such as high-gain antennas, navigation cameras, communication infrastructures, and other highly sophisticated sensors, accelerometers, and spectrometers.
A discreet observer
The MRO has made many important discoveries since it began orbiting Mars in 2006. It has revealed that Mars was once a much wetter planet than it is today, with evidence of ancient lakes, rivers, and oceans. The spacecraft has also discovered that Mars has active geological processes, like earthquakes, landslides, and dust devils, and has identified potential landing sites for future Mars missions.
Some “salty” discoveries
One of the most exciting discoveries was made by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech): researchers used the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to determine that the surface water left behind saline minerals only 2 billion years ago.
It is commonly believed that water on Mars evaporated about 3 billion years ago, which means that water has been present a billion years longer than previous estimates. MRO is a demonstration of how the details of the planet Mars become more and more as the years go by.
The MRO has also played an important role in supporting other Mars missions. It has acted as a communication relay for the Mars rovers, transmitting data back to Earth and helping to coordinate their movements.
It is difficult to pilot something that responds with a delay of 4 to 20 minutes depending on the mutual position between the two planets. It has also helped to identify potential landing sites for future missions, including the Mars 2020 rover mission.
A shiny career
Overall, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been a highly successful mission, revolutionizing our understanding of Mars and paving the way for future exploration of the Red Planet. Its advanced scientific instruments have allowed us to study Mars in unprecedented detail, and its discoveries have opened up new avenues for research and exploration.