The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is celebrating 10 years of service in its mission to study Mars from orbit. The vehicle has delivered a wealth of information to astronomers and other researchers on Earth, and mission engineers say there is still a lot of great science yet to come from the orbiting Martian observatory. 

The MRO was launched from Earth on July 21, 2005. The vehicle is capable of observing features on the surface of Mars as small as a computer desk. 

"MRO has discovered that Mars' south polar cap holds enough buried carbon-dioxide ice to double the planet's current atmosphere if it warmed. It's caught avalanches and dust storms in action. The spacecraft's longevity has made it possible to study seasonal and longer-term changes over four Martian years," Rich Zurek from Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

In addition, the spacecraft has yielded data of fresh impact craters that can expose ice beneath the Martian surface, as well as dark strips of land that change color with the seasons, which astronomers say may be due to brine flows. Impact glass, created by ancient meteor strikes, was also detected by the decade-old Martian orbiter. 

The MRO also serves another vital function for missions to Mars — relaying data between small rovers and landers on the ground and controllers on Earth. This function is likely to continue well into the future, as long as the orbiter remains functional. 

In September 2016, the InSight mission is due to land on the surface of the Red Planet. Mission planners on the MRO program have already re-positioned the orbiter to best utilize the vehicle during the upcoming landing. 

"Without making this orbit change maneuver, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be unable to hear from InSight during the landing, but this will put us in the right place at the right time," said Dan Johnston, MRO Project Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Sitting on the surface of Mars, InSight will utilize a network of instruments to carefully examine the interior of the Red Planet. This study could uncover how the terrestrial planets, including the Earth, formed and developed over the last 4.5 billion years. Two more orbital corrections are on schedule for the MRO following the arrival of InSight to Mars. These engine burns are planned for October 2016 and the following April. 

The orbiter will be utilized in planning future missions, including the eventual arrival of human beings on the Red Planet. Currently, NASA is planning to place the first people on the surface of Mars sometime in the 2030s. 

ⓒ 2021 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.