Over the last one decade, several space agencies have had several missions, which form a core part of the Mars Exploration Program (MEP). Prior to the launching of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, several spacecrafts were already operating in the planet under the MEP.
The Mars Odyssey was launched in early April 2001 and arrived at its destination in late October 2001. It was designed to aid in the determination of the planet’s surface besides detecting the presence of water and ice in the planet (Mustard et al. 305). Additionally, it is capable of studying Mar’s radiation environment. The next mission was the Mars Express that was launched in June 2, 2003. The European Space Agency and the Italian Space agencies joined forces in the planning of the mission.
NASA also participated in the mission to enhance its success. It explores the surface of the planet and its atmosphere. The third mission involved the Mars Exploration Rovers, which landed on the planet on January 4, 2004. Its main goal is to search for evidence of the availability of liquid water in the planet. Following the Mars Exploration Rovers was the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
The MRO performs several tasks in gathering information that is essential in understanding both the past and the present features or rather nature of the planet. This paper explores the mission of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in relation to Mars Exploration Program, gives detailed information about how it is able to achieve its mission as well as the significance of its findings to the study of the planet.
The Mission of the MRO
The series of the missions under the MEP aim at providing scientific information, which is essential in the continual exploration of the planet. The MEP operates in accordance to the scientific objectives that were set by the World’s scientific community regarding the exploration of Mars.
The objectives include the search for past and/or present life on the planet, assess the presence and nature of the resources available in the planet for human exploration as well as understanding the climate and the history of the planet. The program also seeks to help scientists understand the geological processes of the planet and their role in shaping both the subsurface and surface of the planet. All the objectives of the program are based on the existence of water on the planet as well as the role it plays in life.
The National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) launched the MRO on August 12, 2005 and arrived at Mars on March 10, 2006. The MRO seeks to achieve four primary science goals, which are in line with the MEP’s overall mission of finding evidence about the existence of water in the planet.
The four goals include the determination of whether any living organism has ever existed on the planet, Characterization of the Martian Climate over a decade, Characterization of the geology of the planet as well as the provision of essential information for future preparation of human exploration of the planet.
To enhance the materialization of the four science goals, the MRO has its specific objectives. One of the objectives is to understand not only the past but also the present processes of climate change. The objective is achieved by observing the daily variations and the seasonal cycles of carbon dioxide, water and dust (Johnson et al. 10).
The scientists also need to elucidate all the factors that control the variable distribution of the three elements and distinguish the processes of oelian transport. This can be achieved by the characterization of the planet’s (Mars) global atmospheric circulation, surface changes and atmospheric structure as provided by the MRO.
The search for the evidence of aqueous and/or hydrothermal activity in Mars one of the scientific objectives of the MRO mission. To enhance the materialization of this objective, the MRO plays the role of investigating local areas in search of compositional evidence of such phenomenon (Johnson et al. 10).
The main indicator, in this case, is the presence of surface materials that have the ability to preserve biogenic materials or rather materials that exhibit some form of biological activity. In the detailed search for aqueous activity, the MRO will not only need to observe but also quantify the geomorphology of key areas on the surface of the planet that indicate the presence and persistence of water in liquid water.
The MRO is expected to probe the horizontal and the vertical structures of the planet’s upper superficial layer and its potential reservoirs of the two main forms of war in the planet-water and ice.
The MRO plays several roles in unveiling the geosciences of Mars. It enhances a better understanding of the nature and evolution of the various types of Martian terrain. The MRO maps and characterizes the composition, geomorphology and the stratigraphy of the surface and the subsurface of the planet in different global locales (Johnson et al. 10).
It also provides data about the gravity of the Martian crust, lithosphere and the atmospheric mass variation. By so doing, the MRO plays a pivotal role of characterizing the Martian gravity field. Finally, it aids the relay of scientific data from the Mars-landed satellites to earth during a relay phase
The specific instruments/features aboard the MRO
The MRO has several science instruments that operate differently with their findings geared towards achieving the goals of the satellite. One of the science instruments is the Mars Colour Imager (MARCI). It produces daily global maps of weather on the planet. However, its primary role is to find traces of water in the planet by tracking the ozone, which acts as a proxy for water vapor. The photochemical processes that occur in the planet increase the anti-correlation of water with the spatial distribution of ozone.
The phenomenon enhances the device’s ability to track the ozone. It is also capable of detecting changes in surface properties, which include the local, regional and global redistribution of dust around the planet. MARCI derives its potential to carry out its functions from its main components-two framing cameras. The first camera has two spectral bands in the ultraviolet. The second camera has five spectral brands in the visible (Zurek, and Smrekar 3).
It plays a complimentary role to the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS). MARCI is expected to provide weather updates of Mars for a decade on a daily basis thus giving the climate of the planet. Besides providing a decade-long climate record, its maps also assist in not only the entry but also the landing of the NASA’s Lander missions such as the installation of the Mars Science Laboratory.
Research has shown that the data produced by the MARCI is also essential in alerting the other MRO instruments to ‘atmospheric seeing conditions’ (Zurek, and Smrekar 5). MARCI has played a pivotal role in the expansion of scientists’ ‘climatological’ records of Mars’ atmospheric processes, their variation as well as their inter-annual variability.
The Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) also plays a pivotal role in the overall functionality of the MRO. It provides atmospheric profiles of water vapor distribution, temperature and dust. It does so through the application of remote sensing measurements at thermal infrared wavelengths.
The measurements are essential in the measurement of the specific underlying mechanisms that cause the planet’s seasonal changes as well as their annual and inter-annual variability. It also monitors the appearance of frost in the Martian atmosphere that enables scientists to closely study the climate changes over different periods.
The Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM) is also an important component of the MRO (Ball and Aerospace Technologies Corp 12). It comprises of a well-calibrated instrument that has a high precision, high sensitivity and cooled detectors.
The main function of the CRISM is to provide both the NASA and the European Space Agency, among other space agencies, with compositional evidence of the presence of water on Mars. It has the capability to detect water in aqueous form, which acts as the basis of all its findings.
Additionally, its ability to unveil the surface composition of water can be attributed to its ability to provide the data required to remove all atmospheric interferences such as features from the sun that are reflected by not only the Martian atmosphere but the planet’s surface as well. With a combination of the compositional data provided by the device and geomorphologic data, scientists have been able to learn more about the history of the Planet’s climate.
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) provides images of the planet. It has a high-resolution camera. It is the largest and the highest-resolution camera that has ever been sent beyond the Earth’s orbit (Mitchell 8). Its components enable it to not only produce black and white images but also color images. Additionally, it is able to produce hundreds of stereo-image pairs and three-dimensional digital elevation models.
During the MRO mission, Ball Aerospace and technologies Corporation expect the camera to process a thousand extremely large high-resolution images. For the smaller high-resolution images, the camera will produce nine times the amount of the large high-resolution ones. Research has shown that “it would take 1,200 typical computer screens to display just one large image at full resolution” (Ball and Aerospace Technologies Corp 12).
The context imager (CTI) works simultaneously with the HiRISE. It produces medium resolution images of the planet. Unlike the high resolution HiRISE that has a limited coverage on the planet at any given time; CTI covers a large fraction of the planet. This enables the scientists to gather a variety of medium resolution images that they interpret with respect to the images produced by HiRISE. CTX has been able to provide data about the relationships between different surface features.
Such information is essential in the provision of new insights into local, regional as well as global features of the Martian atmosphere and climate (Zurek, and Smrekar 7).
Installed in the MRO is the Shallow Radar (SHARAD). Its purpose is to unveil more properties of the planets subsurface. The previous missions to Mars had detected several features in the subsurface. Some of the features include buried craters, which have some ice deposits. They had also detected layers of ice on the northern plains or rather the North Pole. Similar features were also detected in the South Pole. The instruments that scientists had previously used to do these detections were installed in Mars Odyssey.
The SHARAD has a significantly higher vertical resolution power than the Mars Odyssey instruments. Unlike the Odyssey facilities, the SHARAD is able to penetrate the planet’s subsurface to a depth of half a kilometer. Through its ability to probe many meters into the surface, the SHARAD will be able to provide information that will assist scientists in defining the relationship between the ice found on the planet’s subsurface and other features.
Scientists will be able to tell whether the ice is merely at an atmospheric equilibrium at any given time of the planet or whether it is at the top of a deeper permafrost regime or a deeper cryosphere. The information is also important in testing various models of the patterns of climate change associated with changes in orbital eccentricity or rather phasing. The information further intensifies the study of the Martian regolith.
MRO’s support to other MEP missions/spacecrafts
Orbiter relay is one of the support mission objectives. It revolves around the value of telecommunications’ support by orbiting spacecraft. This occurs through the relay of a series of commands from the control system on earth to the landed spacecraft on the planet. It also incorporates the downlink of scientific data/information from the landed spacecrafts (on Mars) to earth (Dunbar 3).
One of the systems that has been able to relay such information is the 2001 Mars Odyssey (ODY) which supports the Mars Exploration Rovers. To ensure that this support objective is achieved, the MRO flies a UHF antenna and a radio relay package (Electra). They were able to support the Mass Science Laboratory in 2010 and the Phoenix Lander in 2008.
The MRO also helps in site characterization that is accomplished by the scientific instruments. The instruments provide information that enhances the identification of sites on Mars for future exploration. The two properties that aid in the identification of such sites are the freedom from hazards and the area’s potential for further scientific study in the planet.
One of the initial priorities as far as site characterization is concerned was the observation of the prime candidate landing sites for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and Phoenix.
The MRO flies two demonstration technologies namely the Ka-Band operations and the Optical Navigation Camera to accomplish its technology demonstration goals.
The two operations are carried out on non-interference basis with the principal mission science. The Optical Navigation Camera provides precise navigation information by imaging the moons of the Mars on approach (Mustard 308). The information is fundamental in guiding spacecrafts to a highly direct entry into the Martian atmosphere. Consequently, it reduces the landed error eclipse.
The Ka-band function of the MRO characterizes the utility of Ka-band frequencies for the purpose of routine data return via the earth’s atmosphere. Unlike all the nominal X-band packages that NASA employed in its previous missions to Mars, the Ka-band has the ability to transmit data at a very high rate using less power and with a greater bandwidth.
The contribution of the MRO in understanding Mars
There have been several missions to Mars. All the missions are geared towards providing information that is essential in understanding the nature of the planet. The MRO has been able to identify and characterize the water found in the planet. With the help of the HiRISE aboard the MRO, scientists have been able to identify five craters in the planet that are 1.5-8 feet deep. Inside the craters are several white bright blotches. Scientists identified the blotches as ice due to the capability of the HiRISE to provide clear high-resolution images.
Further monitoring of the bright blotches led to the realization that the water that exists in Mars is in pure form, i.e. it did not contain any extraneous materials such as duct (The New York Times 7). After a few months, the bright blotches in the crater disappeared. A close observation of the rate at which the blotches, previously identified as ice, disappeared with the help of computer simulations, scientists concluded that the water was in pure form.
The MRO has also enabled scientists to find the position of certain features of the planet relative to the Equator. Contrary to prior information provided by other spacecrafts in the planet, scientists have evidence to prove that the ice in the mid-latitudes was very close to the Equator. Additionally, they have been able to conclude that in the past high humidity was one of the key characteristics of the Martian climate (The New York Times 12).
The MRO has helped in the identification of landing sites for other spacecrafts on Mars among which is the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). The MSL landed in Mars early last month. The core business of the MSL is to find whether the planet has the capability of supporting life with specific interest on the life of microbes or rather microorganisms.
Therefore, its main mission is to determine the inhabitability of the planet, which is of much value as far as the Mars Exploration Program is concerned. Other than the landing of the MSL on the planet, the MRO continues to provide more information essential in identifying sites for the landing of future spacecrafts on the planet.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is one of the most advanced spacecrafts in the Mars Exploration Program. It has a set of scientific instruments that has enabled it to provide different types of information to scientists. As aforementioned, the MRO has four main goals. The MRO is involved in the identification and characterization of sites that have experienced hydrothermal/ aqueous activity on the surface of the planet. It seeks to identify safe sites for the landing of future Mars Missions.
It also provides information that enables scientists to understand the Martian atmosphere and climate. Furthermore, it plays a supportive role in enhancing the relay of information from spacecrafts landed in Mars to Earth for scientific analysis. It has also enabled the landing of other spacecrafts in Mars, e.g. the Mars Science Laboratory that has the role of finding the ability of the planet to support life.
The MRO thus acts as a multidisciplinary gadget that enables space agencies such as the NASA, ESA, and ISA establish scientific information about Mars. From the above discussion, it is evident that the roles of the MRO can be divided into three main categories: global mapping, high-resolution targeting of specific spots on the surface of the planet as well as regional surveying.
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