March 11, 2006 in Nation/World

Mars craft enters ‘picture perfect’ orbit

Guy Gugliotta Washington Post
 

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed a flawless 300 million-mile trip Friday to sweep smartly into orbit around Mars, dropping out of radio contact behind the planet for a nail-biting half hour only to re-emerge right on schedule to signal its success.

“Look at that!” yelled one engineer at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Right on the money!” shouted another.

“It was picture-perfect,” Project Manager Jim Graf told NASA television. “We couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

Engineers had awaited the moment of “orbit insertion” with considerable dread. Four Mars-bound spacecraft have been lost in the last eight years, and 21 of 35 have failed during the 45-year history of missions to the planet.

Friday’s success meant that Mars now has four functioning spacecraft in orbit. The Reconnaissance Orbiter will survey the planet during a science mission designed for two years, but engineers say it could easily operate – at least for relaying communications – for more than a decade.

“We are sending the most capable spacecraft that we have ever sent to Mars, and the most technologically advanced payload we have ever sent to another planet,” Graf said. “It’s a major step forward.”

The spacecraft initially went into a highly elliptical polar orbit extending at its farthest point nearly 30,000 miles from Mars, but engineers at the end of the month will begin “aerobraking,” scraping through the edge of the Martian atmosphere to slow it down in successive orbits over a period of six months until the Orbiter circles the planet less than 200 miles above the Martian surface.

The Reconnaissance Orbiter carries six science instruments, among them a camera sensitive enough to spot boulders in dry flood channels and spectrometers to identify minerals on the Martian surface. Its radio transmitter can send ten times as much data as all the orbiting spacecraft that preceded it combined.

The $720 million mission was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug. 12, 2005. After a flawless, seven-month, 310 million-mile transit, it arrived at the threshold of Martian orbit Friday to begin its final approach.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email