Orbiter to aid NASA with its plans to send manned missions to Mars

Craft to help identify potential landing sites

August 15, 2005|By James Janega | James Janega,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - A car-size orbiter on the first leg of a seven-month, 310 million-mile journey to Mars has a role to play in NASA's plans to send manned missions to the Red Planet.

Officials at NASA, which launched the orbiter Friday, say its primary task is to field a series of orbital experiments that were lost when missions failed to reach the planet in the 1990s.

It will also use its high-resolution cameras and sophisticated climatic observers to gauge weather patterns and pick out potential landing sites for robotic rovers and, eventually, manned missions.

The $720 million jack-of-all-trades will sound the depths of previously spotted water ice pockets, hunt for hot springs and other potential habitats for microbial life, and use its huge antenna to relay data to Earth from other Mars missions.

"There's a lot that this spacecraft has - it's tremendously capable," said Dave Senske, a scientist with the Mars program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

If the orbiter's journey goes as well as the launch, it will join a plucky fleet of robotic cousins that are beeping in high orbits and off-roading across the Red Planet's dusty mid-latitude deserts.

Recent breakthroughs from those missions point to the likely existence of liquid water in Mars' past and huge fields of water ice still to be discovered.

Now, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will try to answer scientists' follow-up questions: How much water? And what does that mean?

To figure out where to find the answers, the orbiter is outfitted with instruments including a high-resolution camera that will create three-dimensional portraits of the Martian ground. The 20-inch-long telephoto lens will peek into gullies and spot erosion in ravines.

Other Martian cameras, if orbiting Earth, could spot cars on streets, Senske said. "Now, we hope to see manhole covers."

Another crucial instrument is a spectrometer used to parse hundreds of infrared wavelengths reflected from the Martian surface. Each wavelength describes the presence of minerals, many of which whisper of the life story of water.

Shallow sounding radar will be used to determine the depths of water ice pockets already found. A color imager will enable the orbiter to function essentially as a Martian weather satellite.

The mission will set the stage for two landers: The Phoenix Mars Scout, which will test the Martian poles for habitability, will be launched in 2007; the Mars Science Laboratory, a heavy rover tasked with analyzing rock and soil samples, will follow two years later.

If all goes according to plan, the orbiter will drop into orbit high above Mars in early March. For the next six months, it will skim through the thin Martian upper atmosphere, slowing a bit with each pass until settling into an orbit 190 miles above Mars' arid surface.

The course changes will be white-knuckle maneuvers for scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, who lost the Mars Observer in 1993 over a math error and the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both in 1999.

So far, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has performed perfectly, NASA officials say.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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