News and Information

Safety delay for Nasa Mars probe
August 10, 2005

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Nasa
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will support future surface missions
Problems with a new rocket launcher have forced Nasa to delay the launch of a new Mars probe by at least one day.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is now scheduled to take off on Thursday after the discovery of problems with the Atlas V launch rocket.

The probe will investigate the history of water on Mars and hunt for landing sites for future manned missions.

The delay comes one day after Nasa celebrated the successful return to Earth of the space shuttle Discovery.

The new Mars orbiter cost over $500m (£280m) to build and is due to arrive in Mars' orbit in March 2006, for a 25-month mission.

Nasa said the orbiter was now scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral space centre between 0735 and 0950 local time (1135 and 1350 GMT) on Thursday,.

Water search

The MRO is the biggest spacecraft to be sent to Mars, carrying some of the most sophisticated instruments ever.

"MRO is the next step in our ambitious exploration of Mars," said Douglas McCuistion, director of Nasa's Mars exploration programme.

1) 3m High-gain antenna
2) High-resolution Imaging Science Experiment
3) Electra UHF communications relay
4) Mars Climate Sounder
5) Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars
6) Orbit insertion thrusters
7) Shallow subsurface radar
8) Thrusters
9) Optical Navigation camera
10) Low-gain antennae

"We expect to use this spacecraft's eyes in the sky in coming years as our primary tools to identify and evaluate the best places for future missions to land."

The spacecraft will study the composition and structure of Mars and serve as a powerful communications relay for future missions to the surface.

One of its scientific objectives is to explore whether Mars could once have supported microbial life. Its cameras and spectrometers will search the surface for features related to water, without which life is not thought able to survive. Meanwhile, a radar sounder will look for liquid water reservoirs that may exist beneath the surface of Mars.

Beagle clues

British scientists hope it will also discover what happened to the lost Mars probe, Beagle 2.

MRO is moved into Kennedy Space Center, Nasa
The boxed-up orbiter arrives at Kennedy Space Center

Professor Colin Pillinger, from the Open University, who led the Beagle 2 mission, said: "If we could just see some trace of it on the surface then at least we could see how far it got - the not knowing is the worst bit.

"It will be a very difficult thing to do, but this is our best chance of finding out what happened and we will be watching the progress of the mission with great interest and anticipation."

The MRO will join two US orbiters - the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey - and one European orbiter, Mars Express, at the Red Planet.

Two US robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been on the Martian surface for the past 18 months, investigating the geology of Mars.

Nasa is planning two further Mars missions this decade: the Phoenix module, set for launch in 2007, and Mars Science Laboratory in 2009.


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