"Our spacecraft has finally become an orbiter," said JPL's Jim Graf, project manager for the mission. "The celebration feels great, but it will be very brief because before we start our main science phase, we still have six months of challenging work to adjust the orbit to the right size and shape."
For the next half-year, the mission will use hundreds of carefully calculated dips into Mars' atmosphere in a process called "aerobraking." This will shrink its orbit from the elongated ellipse it is now flying, to a nearly circular two-hour orbit. For the mission's principal science phase, scheduled to begin in November, the desired orbit is a nearly circular loop ranging from 320 kilometers (199 miles) to 255 kilometers (158 miles) in altitude, lower than any previous Mars orbiter. To go directly into such an orbit instead of using aerobraking, the mission would have needed to carry about 70 percent more fuel when it launched.
The instruments on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will examine the planet from this low-altitude orbit. A spectrometer will map water-related minerals in patches as small as a baseball infield. A radar instrument will probe for underground layers of rock and water. One telescopic camera will resolve features as small as a card table. Another will put the highest-resolution images into broader context. A color camera will monitor the entire planet daily for changes in weather. A radiometer will check each layer of the atmosphere for variations in temperature, water vapor and dust.
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