Spaceflight Now

Spaceflight Now +

Premium video content for our Spaceflight Now Plus subscribers.

MRO's orbit insertion explained
The make-or-break engine firing by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to enter orbit around Mars and the subsequent aerobraking to reach the low-altitude perch for science observations are explained by project manager Jim Graf in this narrated animation package.

 Play video

MRO overview briefing
Fuk Li, Mars program manager at JPL, Jim Graf, MRO project manager, Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist, and Dan McCleese, the principal investigator for the Mars Climate Sounder instrument, provide an overview on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 8, about 48 hours before arrival at Mars.

 Play video:
   Dial-up | Broadband

Mars orbiter briefing
With two weeks until its arrival at the red planet, NASA and Lockheed Martin officials hold this Feb. 24 news conference on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The briefing explains how the MRO spacecraft will fire its engines to enter into orbit around Mars and the mission's scientific goals to examine the planet like never before.

 Play video:
   Dial-up | Broadband

 Download audio:
   For iPod

Mars probe leaves Earth
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifts off aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral's Complex 41.

 Full coverage

Mars rover anniversary
The remarkable rovers Spirit and Opportunity remain alive and well on the surface of the Red Planet, far outlasting their planned 90-day missions. On Jan. 24, the second anniversary of Opportunity's landing, project officials and scientists held this celebration event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 Dialup | Broadband 1 2

STS-7: America's first woman astronaut
The seventh flight of the space shuttle is remembered for breaking the gender barrier for U.S. spaceflight. Sally Ride flew into space and the history books with her historic June 1983 mission, becoming America's first woman astronaut. STS-7 also launched a pair of commercial communications spacecraft, then deployed a small platform fitted with experiments and camera package that captured iconic pictures of Challenger flying above the blue Earth and black void of space. The crew members narrate highlights from the mission in this post-flight film presentation.

 Small | Medium | Large

STS-6: Challenger debut
The space shuttle program became a two-orbiter fleet on April 4, 1983 when Challenger launched on its maiden voyage from Kennedy Space Center. The STS-6 mission featured the first ever spacewalk from a space shuttle and the deployment of NASA's first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. The four astronauts narrate a movie of highlights from their five-day mission in this post-flight presentation.

 Small | Medium | Large

STS-121 crew press chat
Commander Steve Lindsey and his crew, the astronauts set to fly the second post-Columbia test flight, hold an informal news conference with reporters at Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 17. The crew is in Florida to examine hardware and equipment that will be carried on the STS-121 flight of shuttle Discovery.

 Play video:
   Dial-up | Broadband

 Download audio:
   For iPod

House hearing on NASA
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and his No. 2, Shana Dale, appear before the House Science Committee on Feb. 16 to defend President Bush's proposed 2007 budget for the space agency. Congressmen grill Griffin and Dale about the budget's plans to cut funding for some science programs.

 Play video

STS-5: Commercial era
With the four test flights complete, NASA declared the space shuttle a fully operational program. The crews were expanded, commercial payloads were welcomed aboard and the mission plans became much more hectic. This new era began with Columbia's STS-5 flight that launched the ANIK-C3 and SBS-C commercial communications satellites from the shuttle's payload bay. Commander Vance Brand, pilot Bob Overmyer and mission specialists Joe Allen and Bill Lenoir narrate highlights from their November 1982 mission in this post-flight presentation.

 Small | Medium | Large

Become a subscriber
More video


Sign up for our NewsAlert service and have the latest news in astronomy and space e-mailed direct to your desktop.

Enter your e-mail address:

Privacy note: your e-mail address will not be used for any other purpose.

Spacecraft enters orbit around Mars
Posted: March 10, 2006

After a seven-month voyage from Earth, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully fired its main engines for 27 minutes today, slowing the craft by some 2,200 mph and putting it into a near-perfect elliptical orbit around the Red Planet.

The engines started on time at 4:24 p.m. and were running normally when MRO disappeared behind Mars as viewed from Earth. As expected, the spacecraft remained out of contact for a tense half hour and it wasn't until contact was re-established at 5:16 p.m. that nervous mission managers knew the $720 million mission had survived.

"All stations, we have one way (communications)," an engineer reported when the signal re-appeared.

Flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., erupted in cheers, hugs and applause as the spacecraft emerged from behind Mars and back into radio contact with Earth.

"We're there. We're there!" said an engineer, with evident relief.

"Oh, look, it's right on the money," another marveled.

"Right on the money! Look at that! Right on the money!"

It took another few minutes to confirm the craft was actually in orbit and that the main engines had, in fact, fired long enough to prevent a flyby. If the Mars orbit insertion burn had been too short by just a few minutes, the spacecraft would have sailed past Mars and into a useless orbit around the sun. But the solar-powered satellite operated flawlessly throughout the critical maneuver.

"All stations on MRO coord, this is Nav MSA. We have two-way doppler and MRO is in orbit around the planet Mars," the navigation officer reported, touching off another round of applause.

Spaceflight Now Plus
Additional coverage for subscribers:

The rocket firing put the craft in an elliptical orbit with a low point of 264.5 miles and a high point of about 28,000 miles. The period of the first orbit was estimated to be 35.5 hours, as opposed to the predicted value of 35.4 hours. The MOI burn was designed to reduce the spacecraft's velocity by 2,237.6 mph. The actual result was within 0.4 mph of the desired amount.

"We noticed during the burn we appeared to be underperforming by about 2 percent," said Howard Eisen, MRO flight systems manager. "But the vehicle was smart enough to take care of itself, it actually burned 33 seconds longer to make up the difference. That's why we came in so exact."

Said Jim Graf, MRO project manager: "It's great to be on the flip side of MOI!"

"Today was picture perfect," he said. "As a matter of fact, I thought today was a simulation because we came so close to being right on. ... It's a great feeling to have another spacecraft orbiting around Mars. It's going to re-write the science textbooks."

Approaching Mars from below, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter - MRO for short - pressurized its propulsion system at 3:50 p.m., a critical milestone and the point where NASA's Mars Observer spacecraft failed in 1993. After re-orienting, MRO's flight computer fired up the craft's six 38-pound-thrust main engines main engines at 4:24 p.m. to begin the critical braking maneuver.

"Burn, baby, burn!" an engineer exclaimed when telemetry showed the rocket firing was underway.

About 21 minutes into the rocket firing, MRO disappeared behind the limb of Mars and flight controllers at JPL lost contact with the spacecraft. Thirty minutes later - 25 minutes after the engines were programmed to shut down - MRO emerged from behind Mars.

Using a variety of clever tracking techniques, controllers knew MRO was on the proper course going into today's braking maneuver. And unlike any previous robotic mission, MRO's computer had the ability to reboot itself in the event of a major problem and restart the rocket firing on its own. But nothing went wrong and NASA's latest Mars mission put a major challenge behind it.

Flight controllers will spend the next six to seven months slowly lowering the high point of MRO's orbit by making repeated low-altitude passes through the planet's extreme upper atmosphere. The idea is to use friction with the martian atmosphere to provide the energy necessary to achieve a roughly circular polar orbit.

To guard against overheating the costly spacecraft, flight controllers will proceed very cautiously. Beginning in late March or early April, the low point of the orbit will be slowly reduced to around 62 miles. It will be raised, or "walked out," later, with the ultimate goal being a roughly circular orbit with a high point of at most 199 miles and a low point as close as 158 miles to the surface.

"The first part is there are some practice runs where we just test out the environment, the engines, in this configuration," said project scientist Richard Zurek. "It's like stepping into the pool when you're not sure about the temperature of the water, you put your toe in first and gradually go in. So we go through a series of altitudes to 200 kilometers (124 miles) and then we'll start stepping down from there. It's not until you get to around 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the surface of the planet that you're really going to start feeling the effects of the atmosphere and even then we've got plenty of margin against overheating.

"So you see what that density is and now you've got your first point correlating altitude with what you're seeing. As we get to the lowest altitude, we'll take smaller steps. So step by step, that's what we call the walk in."

During peak aerobraking, Zurek said, the atmospheric forces acting on the spacecraft will be roughly comparable to what one would feel sticking a hand out a car window at a speed of about 40 mph. But it is heat, not the aerodynamic forces, that pose the biggest concern. Engineers do not want MRO to experience anything higher than about 340 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It's kind of a high wire balancing act," Zurek said. "You want to go deep, and in a reasonable amount of time, to get down to the orbit you want and yet you're not going so deep that you're going to overheat some component of the spacecraft."

Once aerobraking is complete, science operations will begin in earnest.

"In 1964, Mariner 4 flew by Mars taking a stark set of 24 images showing a surprisingly barren, cold and dry planet," Michael Meyer, NASA's lead Mars scientist at agency headquarters, said during a recent news conference. "Over 40 years later, we're now poised to collect more data than all the previous missions combined. MRO ... is expected to return 34 terabytes of information. This is about as much information as in a video store. I can only imagine the number of exciting things we're going to find on the planet.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began its journey Aug. 12, 2005, with launch atop a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket. The spacecraft is the latest in a series of robotic probes designed to explore Mars at ever-increasing levels of detail.

Equipped with a suite of sophisticated cameras and other instruments, MRO will sniff out underground ice deposits, map the red planet's geology with unprecedented clarity and monitor its tenuous, dusty atmosphere.

It also will serve as a communications satellite, relaying measurements and observations from future Mars landers while using its own ultra-high-resolution camera and other instruments to identify possible landing sites.

With six sophisticated instruments, including a giant 1.2-gigapixel camera capable of photographing objects as small as a kitchen table, the Mars Climate Orbiter is expected to beam back three to four times the combined output of two NASA spacecraft already in orbit around Mars, along with NASA's Cassini Saturn orbiter and the old Magellan Venus orbiter.

"Since Mariner 4, we've learned that Mars was once warmer and wetter," Meyer said. "But when, and for how long, remains to be the central question in our understanding of the biological potential of Mars. MRO will be multitasking. It's going to be a weather satellite, it's going to be a surveyor, able to identify geological features, minerals, the subsurface structure, it's going to be a communications relay and a guide to the next decade of exploration. The instrument capabilities are unprecedented.

"So after the hair-raising Mars orbit insertion and several months of aerobraking, MRO will start the science orbit and acquire a tremendous amount of data. We will be well placed in finding exciting new features on Mars, places to go and the wherewithal to unveil the past and potential future of Mars."

Spaceflight Now Plus
Additional coverage for subscribers: