11 March 2006 USA: NASA Probe Achieves Mars Orbit

By Dan Whitcomb

PASADENA, California (Reuters) – A $450 million NASA spacecraft dropped smoothly into orbit around Mars on Friday, successfully completing a risky make-or-break maneuver in its two-year mission to search the red planet for life and find landing spots for future astronauts.

Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena erupted in cheers when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which left Earth in August, signaled that it had achieved orbit around a planet that has defeated two-thirds of the probes sent there.

"It's almost like dodging a bullet," said Dan McCleese, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's chief Mars scientist. "It's going to take a few trips around the planet to know for sure, but from what we can see so far it's a near-perfect entry into orbit."

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will spend six months making some 500 trips around Mars, reeling itself in from an elongated 35-hour loop to a nearly circular two-hour orbit, before starting its primary science mission.

The most advanced vessel ever sent to another planet, with instruments that can study an object on the Martian surface the size of a desk, the orbiter will search for signs of life and scout sites where astronauts may land years from now.

It will fly closer to the surface than previous missions and send back 10 times as much data as all previous probes put together, while studying every level of the planet from underground layers to the upper atmosphere.

Mars has proven notoriously difficult for Earth explorers and, after losing two of the last four orbiters they have sent there, NASA scientists said were holding their breath on Friday.

The ship, which had been cruising to Mars at 11,000 mph (17,600 kph), spun its main thrusters forward and fired them for 27 minutes, effectively slamming on the brakes. About an hour after the burn began, the ship, which lost contact with mission controllers when it went behind Mars, emerged and signaled that it was on course.

'ON PINS AND NEEDLES'

If the spacecraft had failed to achieve orbit it would have flown past Mars and off into space – a fate that befell a probe Japan sent in 1998. Japanese mission controllers managed to gain control of the Nozomi orbiter and send it back toward Mars, but it was damaged by solar flares and ultimately lost.

"Everybody was on pins and needles," said McCleese, who worked on both of the previous failed orbiter missions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "This isn't just a mission, this is careers. This is the future of JPL. This has been five years and there is an awful lot of emotion wrapped up in it."

McCleese said that while the orbiter had survived the moment of greatest danger, the spacecraft was still at risk as it circled the planet, particularly from capricious Martian dust storms disrupting the atmosphere.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter program is expected to cost a total of about $720 million. That includes $450 million for the spacecraft and its instruments, $90 million for the launch and $180 million for mission operations, science processing and support.

Source: Reuters

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