NASA's Multipurpose Mars Mission Successfully Launched
A seven-month flight to Mars began this morning for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It will inspect the red planet in fine detail and assist future landers.
An Atlas V launch vehicle, 19 stories tall with the two-ton spacecraft on top, roared away from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:43 a.m. EDT. Its powerful first stage consumed about 200 tons of fuel and oxygen in just over four minutes, then dropped away to let the upper stage finish the job of putting the spacecraft on a path toward Mars. This was the first launch of an interplanetary mission on an Atlas V.
"We have a healthy spacecraft on its way to Mars and a lot of happy people who made this possible," said James Graf, project manager for MRO at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.
MRO established radio contact with controllers 61 minutes after launch and within four minutes of separation from the upper stage. Initial contact came through an antenna at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Uchinoura Space Center in southern Japan.
Health and status information about the orbiter's subsystems were received through Uchinoura and the Goldstone, Calif., antenna station of NASA's Deep Space Network. By 14 minutes after separation, the craft's solar panels finished unfolding, enabling the MRO to start recharging batteries and operate as a fully functional spacecraft.
The orbiter carries six scientific instruments for examining the surface, atmosphere and subsurface of Mars in unprecedented detail from low orbit. For example, its high-resolution camera will reveal features as small as a dishwasher. NASA expects to get several times more data about Mars from MRO than from all previous Martian missions combined.
All in all, a very good week for NASA. First the successful landing of the Shuttle Discovery followed by the virtually perfect launch of the MRO. As the launch manager put it, “It couldn’t have been any smoother.”
The MRO should deliver some stunning images, the resolution of the primary optics is powerful enough to see the MER rovers that landed in January 2004 from orbit!
Aerobraking will begin on March 10, 2006 with the intended orbit achieved by November 2006, so in just a few short months, we should already begin seeing some results. The mission, priced at $720 million (including launch and operation), will consist of two phases: the first analyzing Mars for information pertinent to manned missions in the future and second providing a communications relay for future surface missions. In this regard, the MRO can upload 10 times the data rate of the existing Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor.
[Edited 2005-08-12 20:26:14]