Friday, March 24, 2006

First HiRISE images of Mars

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been orbiting Mars for about a week and is about to begin its 6 month long aerobraking maneuver. Before starting that, it is taking its first test images with the powerful HiRISE camera. This image was taken from about 10 times higher altitude than the final science orbit will be but still produces a resolution of about 2.5 meters per pixel! This image should serve to whet our appetites (but probably not as much as the science teams is being whetted!) for what is to come when the spacecraft reaches its science orbit. Imagine resolutions better than 30cm per pixel! The camera will be taking a couple more images before the spacecraft begins its aerobraking maneuver in which it will dip into the thin upper atmosphere of Mars to use Mars atmosphere to slow the spacecraft slightly at the low point of each orbit, but not so deep into the atmosphere as to cause damage to the spacecraft. In this way, the high point of the MRO orbit around Mars will gradually decrease until it is in a nearly circular Martian orbit.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


The SMART-1 spacecraft has been orbiting the Moon and one of its experiements, the Advanced Moon micro-Imager Experiment (AMIE) has been returning some excellent images of our nearest neighbor. This image of Hadley Rille shows the area and the Apollo 15 landing site (which was near the place where the rille takes a sharp bend to the left just above the center of the mosaic of images). More details about the SMART-1 mission can be found at this website.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A great day for Mars exploration.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully went into orbit around Mars after about a 7 month flight to the red planet. This orbit joins 3 other active orbiters at Mars along with two active rovers on the surface in the hunt for water and the history of water on Mars. The high resolution imaging camera, HiRise will be run at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and will produce the highest resolution images ever taken of any other planetary body with a resolution of about 15cm! HiRise will improve the resolution over Mars Global Surveyor about as far as MGS improved over Viking. Though the coverage of HiRise will be quite local and target specific rather than global, the data rates from the spacecraft will exceed all other spacecraft combined! MRO went into a very elliptical initial orbit after burning its 6 small thrusters for 27 minutes during Mars Orbit Insertion earlier today. It will spend the next 6 months using aerobraking to slowly circularize its orbit - every time it reaches periapse - the low point of its orbit, it will dip very slightly into the Martian atmosphere, slowing the spacecraft and lowering its apoapse a little. Eventually it will be in about a 180 mile circular orbit from which it can start doing its imaging science and then we'll start seeing some very spectacular closeup images of Mars.