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Examining the Red Planet with the eye of an eagle
Artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the red planet.

Examining the Red Planet with the eye of an eagle

By Paul Taylor

The next mission to Mars is going to be a big one.

The U.S. spacecraft, called the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is as tall as a two-storey building and twice as wide. It's jam-packed with scientific instruments that will analyze the atmosphere, the ground and even below the surface of the Red Planet.

"It's a monster," boasts James Graf, project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is running the mission for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In fact, scientists hope to glean more data from this one mission than they have from all 12 successful probes sent to Mars over the past 40 years. (There have actually been 33 missions, but most ended in failure.)

And, if all goes well, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, known as MRO, will help pave the way for the first human flights to the Red Planet in the next few decades.

The launch crew is going through the final checks before MRO is blasted into space from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Liftoff is set for Wednesday. If the launch is scrubbed on that day, there will still be a three-week window during which the two planets are properly aligned for the mission.

It will take seven months to reach Mars, and the two-tonne spacecraft should begin looping around the planet in March of 2006.

After several months, MRO will go into a nearly circular orbit, ranging from 255 to 320 kilometres above the surface -- much closer than recent Mars orbiters. What's more, the spacecraft will be carrying the most powerful telescopic camera yet flown to another planet.

"It has the capacity to make out kitchen-table-sized objects on the surface with great clarity," said Douglas McCuistion, NASA's director of Mars exploration, who predicts MRO will take the most detailed pictures of the rocky terrain ever seen.

Such an eagle eye in the sky will come in handy for picking future landing sites, both for robotic probes and manned missions.

One of MRO's first jobs will be to scan proposed sites for the next lander, dubbed Phoenix, which is supposed to touch down in the northern polar region of Mars in 2008.

"Phoenix is a three-legged lander. . . . You don't want to come down and find one of your legs on a big rock," said Richard Zurek, a project scientist with the MRO mission.

"We are looking for a zone that is nice and smooth, but still in a scientifically interesting area."

A safe landing for the Phoenix probe is certainly on the minds of Canadian space scientists.

That's because the U.S. probe will also contain a Canadian-built weather station that will monitor the temperature, atmospheric pressure and clouds of Mars, said Vicky Hipkin of the Canadian Space Agency.

Canadian contributions to the Phoenix mission are about $30-million. (Canadian scientists also hope to take part in the highly sophisticated U.S. rover called the Mars Science Laboratory, which should start making tracks on the Red Planet in 2010.) The main scientific goal of the MRO will be to look for evidence of water, both past and present.

"Water is the essential ingredient for life," said mission scientist Michael Meyers. If organisms ever evolved on the planet, or still exist there today, they would need liquid water.

Furthermore, human missions will have to locate ample sources of water that can be broken down into oxygen (for breathing) and hydrogen (for fuel). Previous missions have confirmed that water once flowed freely over the now arid surface of Mars. Orbiters have sent back pictures of dried-up riverbeds. And a rover, which is still roaming the planet, discovered mineral deposits that were likely created in standing pools of water.

But scientists don't know whether these "water marks" were left in the distant past or during the more recent geological history of Mars.

Story continues

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