NASA is eagerly watching the final stages of the approach towards Mars's atmosphere of the latest spacecraft to venture towards the Red Planet, hoping to avoid a further costly loss of vehicle.

The agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is expected later today to start insertion manouevres that should see it orbiting Mars by the end of the year. NASA only has a 65% success rate in its space probes orbiting the planet, and around 80% in landing spacecrafts on its surface. For this reason, anticipation has mounted in the mission's Californian headquarters.

At 21:24 GMT tomorrow NASA’s MRO will fire its main thrusters for 27min to reduce its velocity of 18,000km/h (5,000m/s, 985,000ft/min) by 20% to enable Mars’s gravity to capture it and pull it into a very elongated elliptical orbit.

After its seven month cruise, over the next six months more than 500 aerobraking manoeuvres, dips into the atmosphere, will gradually shrink the probe's orbit to the circular, low, orbit needed for its scientific instruments.

“Our primary science phase won’t begin until November,” says MRO’s project scientist Richard Zurek, who is based at its mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. This is due to the need to alter the orbit.

However before November MRO will study the changing structure of Mars’s atmosphere by sensing its density at different altitudes each time it flies through it during aerobraking.

MRO’s mission is to examine Mars’ surface, its atmosphere and subsurface in great detail.  It will aid future missions by scouting possible landing sites and relaying communications. It will send home up to 10 times as much data per minute as any previous Mars mission.

External links:
Visit NASA's official homepage for the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, including live television feeds from the spacecraft.

Source: Flight International