Mars Orbiter to Launch This Week

From Associated Press

A year and a half after twin robot rovers thrilled space fans with their high jinks on Mars, NASA is heading there again.

A fourth Mars orbiter is to blast off Wednesday from Florida, carrying some of the most sophisticated science instruments ever sent into space. Circling the Red Planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is to scan the desolate surface in search of sites to land more robotic explorers in the next decade.

“It’s time we start peeling back the onion layer and start looking at Mars from different vantage points,” said project manager James Graf of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.


Like the three current spacecraft flying around Mars -- including a European orbiter -- the latest probe will seek evidence of water and other signs that the planet could once have been home to life.

The $720-million mission, which launches from Cape Canaveral, will also serve as a communications link to relay data to Earth.

Its camera can snap the sharpest pictures yet of the planet’s rust-colored surface, with six times the resolution of past images.

NASA took its first close-up pictures of Mars in 1965 when the Mariner 4 spacecraft zipped past and snapped fewer than two dozen photos.

Since then, numerous probes that have landed, orbited or passed the planet have shot tens of thousands more images. But only about 2% of the planet has been viewed at high resolution.

The 2-ton reconnaissance orbiter is to be NASA’s last Mars orbiter this decade. Tighter budgets forced the space agency to cancel a $500-million mission planned for 2009.


However, two more landings are to be attempted in the next four years. Scientists hope to use the orbiter’s detailed mapping to scout safe landing sites for the Phoenix Mars and Mars Science Laboratory missions slated for 2007 and 2009, respectively.

The information gleaned by the spacecraft could also help scientists decide where to send a lander during the next decade to return the first samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter should reach Mars’ orbit in mid-March.

The spacecraft’s primary mission ends in 2010, but scientists say it has enough fuel to last until 2014.