Orbiter Has a Very Successful Week

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter scientists and engineers gathered together again at a press briefing held at JPL in La Cañada Flintridge on Monday. The purpose was to share the impressive images from the spacecraft's first week of photographing the surface of Mars.

The panel consisted of Steve Saunders, program scientist, Scott Murchie, principal investigator for the spectrometer on the spacecraft, Alfred McEwen, the camera's principal investigator, Rich Zurek, project scientist, and Jim Graf, project manager.

The most detailed images of Mars ever seen flashed above the panel as they described what they are learning with this first week's test.

"We are seeing gullies that formed over a period of time," McEwen said.

"We are seeing a new Mars," Zurek added.

The images are more detailed due to high resolution cameras that are flying at a lower altitude on the spacecraft.

"It is like flying over the surface of Earth from a commercial airline," Zurek said.

One target of the first week's exploration was Mawrth Vallis, an area that a European spacecraft had discovered where ancient deposits of clay minerals were seen. These deposits could only form if water was present for a long time. MRO cameras detected differing clay mineral content. The clay-rich areas show some of the best evidence for conditions possibly favorable for life on ancient Mars.

All Mars missions are to "follow the water." This theory is built on the basis that water leads to life, extinct or present. Part of MRO's exploration is in sending back data on the planet's atmosphere. Scientists have many questions about the cycle of moisture from the surface to the atmosphere and back again.

"How much water is lost in the atmosphere?" questioned Zurek. We can see mass move from the atmosphere to the surface and back again, he said. "MRO is low enough."

Since its launch on Aug. 12, 2005, the spacecraft has performed flawlessly. Throughout its seven month flight to Mars, it proved it could receive, process and execute commands without hesitation. When the spacecraft arrived on March 10, 2006, it had already been put through many tests.

"[When it arrived] we had achieved a major milestone," Graf said.

It was then put through five months of "areobraking," a process that slowed the spacecraft down by skimming the planet's atmosphere. Even during that time it continued to take data from the atmosphere that scientists are now analyzing.

The spacecraft is also unique in its data capability.

"It [the spacecraft] returned more data than the two rovers combined and that was just in a week, a short week," Graf said.

Graf credits the spacecraft's success in orbit because of its stability, communication, ability to do intensive investigation, increased coverage of exploration of the planet and the ability to specialize.

"The stability of the spacecraft is important," Graf said.

Taking images at a low altitude with high resolution cameras required the spacecraft to be very stable. It is also able to "roll" which was first tested in early October. This allows stereo images of an area.

MRO is also there for support of Mars exploration equipment already in place and for future programs like the upcoming Phoenix scheduled for 2008 and Mars Lab in 2010.

These programs will relay data to MRO which in turn will send the information back to Earth.

"We may do the same thing for Spirit [the rover already on the surface]," Graf said.

Everyone on the panel agreed that this is just a small taste of what the MRO can do.

When asked what they have seen that is truly new, McEwen said, "Lots and lots of things that are new."

He admitted that conveying the importance of the recent photos will be difficult because they have had so little time to analyze.

One of the most exciting things, though, is the clarity of the images, which are precise and clear. "We are seeing a new level of detail," Murchie said.

"We are seeing slices of time in the evolution of Mars," Zurek said.

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