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Space Exploration Mission: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 22nd, 2022


Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a NASA multipurpose spaceship tailored to carry out surveillance, reconnaissance and explore Mars in the course of its orbital revolution around the planet Mars. Its inception fostered the exploration of Mars with the introduction of more data collecting instruments than the ones formerly used by other spacecraft like the Mars Express, the Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Odyssey, and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers (The planetary society 1). The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was valued at US$720 million and is believed to be one of the most operational spacecraft within the proximity of Mars. Having been mounted by Lockheed Martin in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched on August the 12th of 2005 and consequently attained its Martian orbit on March the 10th of 2006. Soon afterward, it was ushered into its final science orbit and immediately started the elemental science stage of data collection.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter comprises innumerable scientific appliances, of which cameras, spectrometers, and radar form part, which is essentially engineered for the analysis of landforms, stratigraphy, minerals, and ice of Mars. It also does the robust function of laying a firm foundation upon which future Martian explorations and discoveries would be based; it basically accomplishes this by studying the daily weather and surface patterns, identifying potential sites for spacecraft landing, and by integrating a modernized telecommunication system among its scientific instruments (Stathopoulos 1). The new version of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s telecommunication system serves an invaluable function of transferring enormous amounts of scientific data back to the Earth; with its telecommunication system being rated at higher effectiveness than the aggregate effect of all the previous Martian spacecraft, and thus MRO is the cornerstone relay satellite for upcoming space missions.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is under the direct watch of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at the California Institute of Technology, within the domain of the Directorate of NASA Science Mission in Washington D.C.

Historical Development

The historical development of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is anchored on the dual mission which was targeted for in the 2003 Mars launch window; nonetheless, within the course of the drafting the proposal the MRO was overtaken by what was later to be referred to as the Mars Exploration Rovers (Dowdey and Lamb 1). In 2005, the launch of the Mars orbiter was yet again rekindled with NASA giving it a new tag – Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on October 26, 2000.

The high level of success attained by the Martian surveillance of the Mars Global Surveyor was a precursor to the mount of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The initial design of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter comprised of an extensive camera with a characteristic feature of high resolution necessary for clear Martian pictures. It is upon this feature of high-resolution cameras that, Jim Garvin, the Mars exploration program scientist for NASA, dubbed the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to be a ‘microscope in orbit’. Visible – near-infrared spectrograph was still to be incorporated within the components of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (The planetary society 1).

On October the 3rd of 2001, Lockheed Martin was selected by NASA as the main contractor for the fabrication of the satellite (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter). In the latter part of 2001, all the necessary instruments were assembled. During the construction process of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, no major obstacles were encountered, and the satellite was transferred to John F. Kennedy Space Center on May the 1st of 2005 as a pre–launch exercise.

Mission Objectives

The development of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was aimed at mapping the Martian landscape with its high-resolution cameras; a move towards identifying the most preferable landing sites for future explorations. Its initial schedule of service was projected to last from November 2006 to November 2008 and more so, equipped with inbuilt meteorological appliances MRO can give a detailed study of the Martian climate, weather, geology, atmospheric constituents, and it serves the invaluable purpose of unearthing any significant signs of liquid water (Stathopoulos 1).

For instance, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter served a very crucial purpose in determining the landing site of the Phoenix Lander, whose area of interest/study was the Martian Arctic in Green Valley. Covered with boulders, the original site selected by scientists as photographed by the HiRISE camera, was abandoned for the more preferable THEMIS. Yet still, it is projected that the landing site for Mars Science Laboratory which is a rover of great dynamic potential, would be established in the near future via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (ScienceDaily 1). In addition to this, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter does not only serve the useful purpose of showing critical navigation data during the landing of satellites but also aids in acting as a telecommunication relay for interplanetary links.

Currently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is searching for the remains of past Mars Polar Lander and Beagle 2 satellite, which marks the initial step towards the achievement of an Internet protocol link connecting the solar system. Upon the completion of its core scientific dynamics, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s inquiry would be extended to encompass the communication and navigation domains that are useful for Lander and rover studies.

Launch and Synchrony to its Orbit

The 12th of August, 2005 was marked by the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter via a rocket at Cape Canaveral Air force Station, with the Centaur upper stage of the rocket finalizing its combustion over around an hour before synchronizing the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in its interplanetary transfer orbit to Mars (Batty 1). The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter traveled through the interplanetary vacuum for 7.5 months before the required orbital insertion was done. Even within its motion the MRO at the proximity of Mars, most of the scientific experiments were carried out.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter started its orbital synchrony by advancing towards Mars on March the 10th of 2006 and running over its southern hemisphere at an altitude of 190miles. All the main engines of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were used for about half an hour, reducing the probe from 6,500 mph to 4250 mph. The helium pressurization tank was at such unprecedented low levels of coldness that the pressure within the fuel chamber was lowered by roughly 21 kPa. Due to these minimal levels of pressure, the resultant force in the engine was lowered by 2%; nonetheless, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was prompt in compensating for the loss by adding half a minute burn – time for the engine (Dowdey, and Lamb 1).

“The final state of the orbital synchrony of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was characterized by a highly elliptical polar orbit with an average period of 35.5 hours” (Dowdey, and Lamb 1). Soon after this process of synchrony, the periapsis (the closest point of the satellite to Mars) was at an estimated distance of 3,800 km from the core of Mars and the apoapsis (the farthest point of the satellite from Mars) was at an estimated distance of 48,000 km from the core of Mars.

On March the 30th of 2006, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter the initial phase of aerobraking was started, which comprised of a three-phased undertaking that was aimed at reducing the fuel needed for the realization of a more circular orbit with a shorter period to a minimal level (ScienceDaily 1).

The first phase did occur during the 5 initial orbits of the satellite around mars – which is approximately 1 earth week, in which the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter harnessed its thrusters in letting down the periapsis of its orbit into aerobraking altitude. The fore-mentioned altitude is dependent on the thickness of the fluctuating atmosphere caused by variations in the Martian atmospheric density as a result of dynamic seasonal adjustments. The second phase occurred in both a consecutive and simultaneous manner to the first phase in that, while utilizing its thrusters in adjusting the periapsis altitude, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter kept the aerobraking altitude under check for 445 planetary orbits (approximately 5 Earth months) with an aim of lowering the apoapsis of the orbit to 450 km. This task was intricately carried out with a lot of expertise in such a manner that the satellite was not over heated, but rather it was relatively inclined towards the atmosphere, thus, retarding the satellite down (Batty 1). The third phase took place soon after the completion of the first two phases; it is in this stage that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter utilized its thrusters to dispel its periapsis towards the outskirts of the Martian atmosphere on August the 30th of 2006.

In September 2006 the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter run its thrusters in a bid to polish its almost circular orbit in the final touches to such a close distance range to Mars as 250 km – 316 km. “The SHARAD (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Shallow Subsurface Radar) dipole aerials were used on September the 16th of 2006, then all the scientific instruments were tested and most were switched off prior to the solar conjunction which was observed from October the 7th to November the 6th of 2006. Following the termination of the solar conjunction, the inception of the ‘primary science phase’ took effect” (NASA 1).

On November the 17th of 2006 NASA proclaimed the success of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as an orbital communication relay, by harnessing the NASA rover ‘Spirit’ as the center of transmission, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s function as a communication relay was acclaimed as that of transmitting data back to Earth.

Events and Discoveries

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter undertook its initial high resolution image from its science orbit on September 29, 2006 in which it is believed to have resolved infinitesimal elements of the order of a diametrical dimension of 3 feet (Batty 1). “On October the 6th of 2006, NASA posted elaborate pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Victoria crater together with the Opportunity rover on the rim on its overhead” (Batty 1). Unfortunately, in November operational challenges surfaced for two of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s instruments. This was shown by the unexpected fluctuations in the Mars Climate Sounder causing an oversight of some of the Martian features. The other key obstacle was the challenge posed by heightened noise and the consequential poor pixels as recorded by CCDs of the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), thus with an extended warm-up period, the HiRISE has resolved this problem substantially.

HiRISE has steadily fed us with important images which have paved the way for Martian geological discoveries. The most striking of them being the proclamation of banded terrain features which led many scientists hypothesize that within the immediate geological history of Mars there may have been liquid carbon (IV) oxide or water on the surface of (Mars Stathopoulos 1). On May the 25th of 2008, the HiRISE was in a position of taking clear pictures of the Phoenix Lander during its inclined course to Vastitas Borealis.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was continuously plagued by persistent challenges in 2009, which called for immediate resets of the Orbiter, leading to a 4 month shut down of the satellite from August to December of 2009.

Main Constituent Components

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is made up of 3 cameras, 2 spectrometers and radar together with 2 ‘science facility instruments.’


  1. HiRISE; This is a High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, or rather reflecting telescope in the MRO with a diametrical dimension of 0.5 meters and its resolving power is of the order of one micro radian. HiRISE’s in – build computer systems determines the pixel values of each colored lines observed and at the same time relays this information to the Earth. The main difficulty which is encountered in the functioning of the HiRISE is that it has a finite memory capacity of 28 Gb and a pixel range of 160 – 800 Megapixels.
  2. CTX; The Context Camera, giving grayscale images with a pixel resolution up to around six meters, it is specifically designed to monitor a number of locations for changes over time and to capture a 3 dimensional view of the key regions which are potential future landing sites (ScienceDaily 1).
  3. MARCI; This is the Mars Color Imager with a wide-angle which is able to view the surface of Mars in 5 visible and 2 ultraviolet bands and hence gives the daily Martian weather report which helps in the characterization of Martian seasonal and annual variations.


  1. CRISM; This is the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars which basically employed in giving elaborate surface maps, upon whose analysis the Martian minerals are identified and classified.
  2. MCS; This is the Mars Climate Sounder – a spectrometer comprising of 1 visible channel and 8 infrared channels, which are selected to strategically determine the Martian temperature, pressure, water vapor and the prevailing Martian atmospheric conditions (NASA 1).


SHARAD; This is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Shallow Subsurface Radar which is primarily developed for investigating about the internal structure of the Martian ice caps, furthermore, it reveals the underground Martian stratification which is crucial in not only establishing ice and rock arrangement but also in determining the possibility of liquid water in the immediate neighborhoods of the Martian crust.

Engineering Appliances

Apart from the imaging tools, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter bears other useful engineering instruments (Batty 1). For instance, the Gravity Field Investigation Package is mostly harnessed in the establishment of variations in the Martian gravitational field through the alterations of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s speed. The other appliance which best exemplifies useful engineering instruments in MRO is the Electra- a UHF software defined radio – which is primarily tailored to link the communication network between Martian satellites. In addition to the Gravity Field Investigation Package and the Electra, the Optical Navigation Camera images the Martian moons (Phobos and Deimos) against distance stars in order to trace and maintain an accurate MRO orbit. Even though moon exploration and orbiting is not very important in carrying out Martian inquiries, it was encompassed within the framework of pilot testing upcoming Martian landings (The planetary society 1).

Engineering Data

The structure of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is engineered to satisfy optimal power requirements, effective electronic outlook which are a necessary ingredient in altitude determination, serve the dual role of propulsion/attitude control and in ensuring that a steady – reliable telecommunication system thrives.

Scientific Discoveries

Ice water in ice cap measured

The radar gauge of 2009 established that the volume of water ice in the north polar ice cap of Mars was of an approximate amount to 30% of the Earth’s Greenland ice layer.

Ice in exposed in new craters

New craters on Mars were found and dated by the CTX camera and the existence of ice in those craters was authenticated by the Compact Imaging Spectrometer in MRO, this settled the fact that the new craters harbored a relative amount of pure water.

Ice in lobate debris aprons

Radar pictures given by SHARAD indicate that characteristic surface patterns dubbed ‘Lobate Debris Apron are made up of enormous amounts of water ice. Lobate Debris Aprons are characterized by surface lineation, convex topography and a gentle slope, with SHARAD results authenticating the existence of glaciers on LDA’s surface (Stathopoulos 1). From scientific enquiries of the Phoenix Lander and those of Mars Odyssey, water ice is believed to be within short depths of the Martian surface especially at high latitude regions.

Chloride Deposits

Enormous amounts of chloride mineral deposits have been discovered from virtually all Martian scientific studies and explorations. There exists strong evidence from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Odyssey and the Mars Global Surveyor to verify the fact that chloride deposits result from the evaporation of mineral enriched waters. It is a normal trend that Carbonates, Sulfates and Silica precipitate faster than the chlorides, and this has been verified by the data collected by the Mars Rovers on the surface of the Planet – Mars. Martian regions which are rich with chloride minerals are believed to have held various life forms and therefore act as ancient life reserves (Dowdey and Lamb 1).

Other aqueous minerals

An association of scientists of the CRISM subgroup in the year 2009 categorized about ten varied types of minerals formed in the presence of water, they arrived at this conclusion after analyzing varied types of Martian clays from different locations. These aqueous minerals were dubbed the physilicates and they consist of aluminum smectite, iron smectite, magnesium smectite, chlorite, and prehnite. Carbonates which are known to belong to the category in which life could be developed were found in rocks around the Isidis basin (ScienceDaily 1). Scientific researchers found hydrated sulfates and ferric minerals in Terra Meridiani and in Valles Marineris, other minerals found in Mars include; jarosite, alunite, hematite, opal and gypsum. 2 – 5 mineral categories were developed according to the pH (hydrogen potential) and enough water necessary in supporting life viability in the Planet Mars.


“The effectiveness of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s CTX and HiRISE cameras with a characteristic high resolution is evident from the fact that the cameras were able to take several photographs of avalanches of the scarps of the northern a polar cap, even at the very moment when the massive avalanches were taking place” (NASA 1).

Flowing salty Water

As recent as August the 4th of 2011, NASA declared that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had registered what seemed to be flowing salty water on the terrain of the Martian surface or equivalently subsurface, a phenomenon which is very clear during the warmest seasons on Mars (Batty 1).

The flowing salty water has underpinned Mass to be the Red Planet which could be harboring life in some form and has qualified Mars as one integral part of future destination for human exploration.

Other spacecrafts

The HiRISE in the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has proved to be of an invaluable worth in tracing the orbital motion, and the landing of other Martian spacecrafts. For instance, HiRISE was used to photograph the satellite Phoenix at the very moment it was making its Martian Landing (NASA 1). The HiRISE of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has also been used to monitor and in surveillance functions; as in the tracking of the rover Opportunity as the rover halted to make scientific observations and as it ran along its circuit around Mars.

Works Cited

Batty, David. 2011. Web.

Dowdey, Sarah and Lamb, Robert. 2011. Web.

NASA. . 2011. Web.

ScienceDaily. . 2011. Web.

Stathopoulos. . 2011. Web.

The planetary society. “Space topics: Mars reconnaissance orbiter”. 2011. Web.

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