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Mars Orbiter to Provide Unprecedented Detail of Red Planet

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, now nearing its scheduled rendezvous with Mars on March 10th, could provide scientists with their most detailed look yet at the red planet.

But as VOA's Mil Arcega reports, the most difficult part of the mission is still to come.

After nearly seven months in space, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or MRO, is approaching the most dangerous part of its mission -- achieving a low altitude orbit around Mars.

In order to do that, NASA Program Director Doug Mcquiston says the MRO must first deal with the planet's gravity. "Orbiters seem like they might be the easiest thing to do but in reality we only have about a 65 percent success rate of getting orbiters into orbit."

The initial brush with Martian gravity will put the spacecraft into an elongated, 35 hour orbit around Mars, during which, ground controllers will lose radio contact with the orbiter for about 30 minutes.

After that, Project Manager James Graff says, engineers will rely on a process called aero-braking to tighten the spacecraft's orbit into gradually smaller loops to achieve a nearly circular orbit, about 320 kilometers above the planet.

"We do this by grazing the atmosphere on each orbit and allowing the friction of the atmosphere against the spacecraft to slow ourselves down, this saves us over 500 kilograms at launch."

The saving in weight has allowed the orbiter to carry six instruments capable of transmitting more data back to Earth than all of the previous Martian missions combined. Among the instruments onboard, the most powerful telescopic camera ever sent to a foreign planet and advanced sensors that can identify water deposits located below the martian surface.

Lead Scientist Michael Meyer hopes the mission will provide answers to the most fundamental questions surrounding the red planet. "Determine if life ever arose on Mars, understanding the process and history of climate on Mars, determine the evolutionary surface and interior of the planet and also to prepare for human exploration."

During its planned five-year mission, the MRO will relay thousands of high-resolution images back to Earth. It will also provide support for future Mars missions, including the Phoenix Mars Scout, which will land near the Northern Polar Ice Cap in 2008, and the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to launch in 2009.