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NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter blasted off from Cape Canaveral in 2005, on a search for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. While other Mars missions have shown that water flowed across the surface in Mars' history, it remains a mystery whether water was ever around long enough to provide a habitat for life.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will study the history of water on Mars

After a seven-month cruise to Mars and six months of aerobraking to reach its science orbit, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began seeking out the history of water on Mars with its science instruments. The instruments zoom in for extreme close-up photography of the martian surface, analyze minerals, look for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere, and monitor daily global weather.

These studies are identifying deposits of minerals that may have formed in water over long periods of time, looking for evidence of shorelines of ancient seas and lakes, and analyzing deposits placed in layers over time by flowing water. The mission is examining whether underground martian ice discovered by the Mars Odyssey orbiter is the top layer of a deep ice deposit or a shallow layer in equilibrium with the atmosphere and its seasonal cycle of water vapor.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be able to look at small-scale features

In its survey of the red planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is increasing tenfold the number of spots surveyed close-up. One of the orbiter's cameras is the largest ever flown on a planetary mission. Though previous cameras on other Mars orbiters could identify objects no smaller than a school bus, this camera can spot something as small as a dinner table. That capability has allowed the orbiter to identify obstacles such as large rocks that could jeopardize the safety of future landers and rovers, including the Phoenix mission. Its imaging spectrometer looks at small-scale areas about five times smaller than a football field, a scale perfect for identifying any hot springs or other small water features.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be a powerful communications and navigation link

The orbiter's telecommunications systems provides a crucial service for future spacecraft, serving as the first link in a communications bridge back to Earth, an "interplanetary Internet" that can be used by numerous international spacecraft in coming years. Testing the use of a radio frequency called Ka-band, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has demonstrated the potential for greater performance in communications using significantly less power.

The orbiter also carries an experimental navigation camera. Similar cameras on orbiters of the future will serve as high-precision interplanetary "eyes" to guide incoming landers to precise landings on Mars, opening up exciting but otherwise dangerous areas of the planet to exploration.

The orbiter's primary mission ends about five-and-a-half years after launch, on Dec. 31, 2010. For details on all mission stages, see the Mission Timeline

One of the new technologies aboard MRO is the HiRISE, which is the most advance visual sensor sent to Mars so far. 

HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment)

HiRISE has photographed hundreds of targeted swaths of Mars' surface in unprecedented detail.

This graphic features a comparison between the older, less-capable camera on the Mars Global Surveyor and the new HiRISE camera that will fly aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  The HiRISE camera, larger and more capable than its predecessor, will be better able to try and locate the lost Mars Polar Lander spacecraft.  In this graphic, there is an example of the resolution of the MOC camera and a less pixelated picture that simulates how the HiRISE camera will view the lost spacecraft.
The HiRISE camera has provided the highest-resolution images yet from martian orbit.

The camera operates in visible wavelengths, the same as human eyes, but with a telescopic lens that produces images at resolutions never before seen in planetary exploration missions. These high-resolution images enable scientists to distinguish 1-meter-size (about 3-foot-size) objects on Mars and to study the morphology (surface structure) in a much more comprehensive manner than ever before.

HiRISE also makes observations at near-infrared wavelengths to obtain information on the mineral groups present. From an altitude that varies from 200 to 400 kilometers (about 125 to 250 miles) above Mars, HiRISE acquires surface images containing individual, basketball-size (30 to 60 centimeters, or 1 to 2 feet wide) pixel elements, allowing surface features 4 to 8 feet across to be resolved. These new, high-resolution images are providing unprecedented views of layered materials, gullies, channels, and other science targets, in addition to characterizing possible future landing sites.

Areas for close-up HiRISE imaging are selected on the basis of data returned from Mars Global Surveyor , Mars Odyssey, and regional surveys conducted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's own instruments.

The Principal Investigator (lead scientist) for HiRISE is Alfred McEwen from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona.

Visit the instrument site:

Go To HiRISE Instrument website   HiRISE Instrument Site


MARCI (Mars Color Imager)

MARCI produces a global weather map of Mars to help characterize daily, seasonal, and year-to-year variations in the red planet's climate.

MARCI also observes processes such as dust storms and changes in the polar cap using five visible bands.

In addition, MARCI makes ultraviolet observations at two wavelengths to detect variations in ozone, dust, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. MARCI observes these processes on scales of tens of kilometers.

The Principal Investigator (lead scientist) is Mike Malin from Malin Space Science Systems.


Avalanche Photographed on Mars
By SPACE.com staff

posted: 03 March 2008
01:52 pm ET

A NASA spacecraft has taken the first-ever image of an avalanche in action near Mars' north pole.

The High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took the photograph Feb. 19. The image, released today, shows tan clouds billowing away from the foot of a towering slope, where ice and dust have just cascaded down.

The camera was tracking seasonal changes on Mars when it inadvertently caught the avalanche on film.

HiRISE mission scientist Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona was the first person to notice the avalanche when sifting through images.

"It really surprised me," she said. "It's great to see something so dynamic on Mars. A lot of what we see there hasn't changed for millions of years."

The full image reveals features as small as a desk in a strip of terrain 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) wide and more than 10 times that long, at 84 degrees north latitude. Reddish layers known to be rich in water ice make up the face of a steep slope more than 2,300 feet (700 meters) tall, running the length of the image.

Mars' north pole is covered by a cap of ice, and it even snows there.

The scientists suspect that more ice than dust probably makes up the material that fell from the upper portion of the scarp.

"If blocks of ice broke loose and fell, we expect the water in them will be changing from solid to gas," said Patrick Russell of the University of Berne, Switzerland, a HiRISE team collaborator. "We'll be watching to see if blocks and other debris shrink in size. What we learn could give us a better understanding of one part of the water cycle on Mars."

What set off the landslide and whether such events are common on Mars is something else the team will be looking at.

"We don't know what set off these landslides," Russell said. "We plan to take more images of the site through the changing Martian seasons to see if this kind of avalanche happens all year or is restricted to early spring."

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