Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Ready

Image credit: Ball Aerospace
The camera that will take thousands of the sharpest, most detailed pictures of Mars ever produced from an orbiting spacecraft was delivered today for installation on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will be launched on Aug. 10, 2005, carrying a payload of six science instruments and a communications relay package to boost the ongoing exploration of the red planet.

The largest science instrument on the spacecraft will be the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a 65 kilogram (145 pound) camera with a half-meter (20-inch) diameter primary mirror.

HiRISE has been delivered for installation on the MRO spacecraft at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colo. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., designed, built and tested the $35 million HiRISE camera. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the MRO mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

HiRISE will produce ultra-sharp photographs over 6 kilometer (3.5 mile) swaths of the martian landscape with a best imaging at 25 centimeters (10 inches) per pixel, said Alfred S. McEwen of the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, principal investigator for HiRISE.

“By combining a fine imaging scale (25 centimeters to 32 centimeters a pixel, or 10 inches to 12.5 inches a pixel) and high signal-to-noise ratio, it is possible to resolve features as small as one meter (about 40 inches) wide, a scale currently well-studied only by landers,” McEwen said. “HiRISE will get such views over any selected region of Mars, providing a bridge between orbital remote sensing and landed missions.” Mission scientists will combine stereo image pairs to produce detailed maps of the topography and combine images taken with filters to produce false-color images.

HiRISE will study deposits and landforms created by geologic and climatic processes, and it will help scientists assess future Mars mission landing sites.

(The next Mars lander will be NASA’s first Scout mission, called “Phoenix,” scheduled for launch in 2007. Peter Smith of UA’s Lunar and Planetary Lab heads the Phoenix mission, the first mission to Mars being led by an academic institution.)

“Ball Aerospace has done a fantastic job building an instrument that meets our challenging performance requirements,” McEwen said. “The HiRISE camera can collect the equivalent of about a thousand megapixel images in just three seconds.”

“With the delivery of the HiRISE hardware, team activities now shift to the UA and Lockheed Martin,” McEwen said. “We’ll do a series of flight-like tests before the spacecraft gets shipped to Kennedy Space Center next spring.” In these operational readiness tests, data from the camera on the spacecraft at Lockheed Martin will be sent to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., then to the HiRISE Operations Center (HiROC) on the UA campus in Tucson.

“Rather than data coming down from the Deep Space Network, which will happen once the spacecraft is actually orbiting Mars, we’ll command HiRISE as it sits in a clean room at Lockheed Martin,” Eric Eliason said. Eliason manages activities at HiROC, which is located in the Lunar and Planetary Lab’s Sonett Building.

A dozen people currently staff HiROC. That number will double when the primary mission begins in 2006. Their tasks include writing command software, planning observations, uplinking commands, downlinking data, processing raw data into useful images and monitoring the instrument, Eliason said.

HiRISE co-investigators are:

* Candice Hansen, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, deputy principal investigator
* Alan Delamere, Delamere Support Systems
* Eric Eliason, UA
* Virginia Gulick, NASA Ames/SETI Institute
* Ken Herkenhoff, USGS Flagstaff
* Nathan Bridges, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
* Nick Thomas, University of Bern (Switzerland)
* Randolph Kirk, USGS Flagstaff
* John Grant, Smithsonian Institution
* Laszlo Keszthelyi, USGS Flagstaff
* Mike Mellon, University of Colorado
* Steve Squyres, Cornell University
* Cathy Weitz, Planetary Science Institute (Tucson)

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter scheduled for launch in August 2005 will be captured in Mars orbit by a “Mars orbit insertion” maneuver in March 2006.

Initially, the spacecraft will fly around Mars in a highly elliptical orbit. The orbit will become more circular over the next several months by a technique called “aerobraking.” On each of its close swings by Mars in elliptical orbit, the spacecraft is low enough that it skims the surface of Mars’ atmosphere, creating drag on the spacecraft. The orbiter’s path around the planet becomes more circular on each successive planet flyby.

HiRISE will begin taking photographs when the spacecraft is in a circular orbit, in November 2006. The primary science mission is for two years, or slightly more than a martian year. The orbiter can also serve as a telecommunications relay link for landers launched to Mars in 2007 and 2009. Nominally, the orbiter mission ends Dec. 31, 2010.

Original Source: University of Arizona News Release