NASA's sharp-eyed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has achieved a milestone: It has completed its 50,000th orbit of the red planet. The achievement took place on March 27, approximately 11 years after the MRO arrived on the planet's orbit.
According to the mission officials, the spacecraft is still working perfectly. The probe was launched by NASA in August 2005, and it slipped into Mars' orbit in March 2006. After completing the journey, the probe took some time to refine its orbit. Shortly after this, in November 2006, it began its scientific operations.
MRO Completes 50,000 Mars Orbits
The MRO has provided more than 300 terabits of science data, which it sent back to Earth. The rover carries six instruments with it, three of which are cameras. One of the imagers, called the Context Camera, has photographed the red planet approximately 90,000 different times, covering 99.1 percent of its surface.
Thanks to the Context Camera or CTX, the orbiter has had the opportunity to photograph almost the entire surface of Mars, the size of which is close to the dry land area of Earth. There is no other camera to have seen so much of the red planet. The camera can achieve a resolution of approximately 20 feet per pixel at altitudes of more than 150 miles. The photos the CTX takes are 18.6 miles long and as wide as a tennis court.
In addition to having observed almost the entire planet at least once, the CTX has also managed to observe approximately 60.4 percent of the planet more than once. The scientific value of these observations is quite high, as they don't just help science directly, but also provide meaningful data that can be used in future operations, certifying the safety of landing sites.
"After 11 and a half years in flight, the spacecraft is healthy and remains fully functional. It's a marvelous vehicle that we expect will serve the Mars Exploration Program and Mars science for many more years to come," noted in a statement Dan Johnston, MRO project manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
According to NASA, the MRO is the most data-productive spacecraft yet at Mars. Aside from providing useful images of the planet, the spacecraft has also helped in preparations for NASA's next mission to Mars, called the InSight lander.
InSight will launch in 2018, on a mission that aims to research the planet's deep interior. Until then, the orbiter will keep making diverse science observations of Mars and maintain the communications-relay service for two active rovers of Mars, Opportunity and Curiosity.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, A Useful Scientific Tool
According to NASA, the MRO has an essential role in providing the basis for evaluating different candidate landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover mission. The observations of eight different landing sites were followed, in February 2017, by a workshop meant to narrow down the possible sites to four or fewer.
"From the point of view of evaluating potential landing sites, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the perfect spacecraft for getting all the information needed. You just can't overstate the importance of MRO for landing-site selection," noted the co-chair of the workshop, Matt Golombek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.