Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter


The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a multitasking, multipurpose mars orbiter. MRO was the first spacecraft designed from the ground up for aerobraking and was equipped with the most powerful camera ever flown on a planetary exploration mission. It was launched on 12 August, 2005 and arrived in March 2006.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Picture

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter used a new spacecraft design provided by Lockheed Martin Space Systems that was smarter, more reliable, more agile and more productive than any previous Mars orbiters. The orbiter established the first installment of an “interplanetary Internet”  for future spacecraft. It became the first link in a communications bridge back to Earth.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor for the project. International Launch Services, a Lockheed Martin joint venture and Lockheed Martin Space Systems are providing launch services for the mission.

The Mission

The aim of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is:

  1. To photograph in detail the geology and structure of Planet Mars. The orbiter uses the most powerful camera ever flown on a planetary exploration mission. Its able to spot objects as small as a dinner plate, whereas on previous Mars orbiters the cameras could identify objects no smaller than a dinner table.
  2. To identify surface minerals on Mars, determine if there are deposits of minerals that form in water over long periods of time, detect any shorelines of ancient seas and lakes and analyze deposits placed in layers over time by flowing water. A second camera provides medium-resolution images to place in context the detailed observations made by other instruments.
  3. To identify and characterize potential sites for future landers, rovers and mars sample return missions and to search for possible obstacles that could jeopardize the safety of future mars missions.
  4. To study the present climate of Mars and its physical mechanisms of seasonal climate change. To study how dust and water are transported in the martian atmosphere and monitor weather.
  5. To search for subsurface water, determine the nature of the complex layered terrain on Mars and identify water-related landforms, sites showing evidence of aqueous and hydrothermal activity.
  6. To serve as a high-data-rate communications relay for future surface missions. To also test an experimental optical navigation camera that will serve as a high-precision interplanetary lighthouse to guide incoming spacecraft as they near Mars.


Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter consists of a main bus, constructed of titanium, carbon composites and aluminum honeycomb. It includes two solar panel wings and a 3 meter high-gain antenna dish. The bus houses the propulsion system, telecommunications, command, guidance, and science instruments. The maximum spacecraft mass is 2180 kg, which includes 1149 kg of propellants.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter uses a monopropellant propulsion system and consists of a total of 20 thrusters. Six 170 N (Newton) monopropellant (hydrazine) main-engine thrusters are used for the Mars Orbit insertion burn, a maneuver which will require about 70% of the total fuel onboard. Six 22 N thrusters are used for trajectory correction maneuvers and eight 0.9 N thrusters for pointing. All thrusters are fed from a single propellant tank mounted near the centre of the main bus.


* Statement Of Work by NASA describing the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was announced April 2001.

* On 9 November, 2001, NASA announced the selection of 10 scientific investigations as part of the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

* The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft arrived at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on 30 April, 2005 aboard a C-17 cargo plane and was taken to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility to begin processing.

* Atlas V Rocket (Atlas V-401 – designated AV-007) launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on 12 August 2005 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, USA. The cruise to Mars took about seven months. It arrived at Mars in 10 March 2006 and the orbiter performed a Mars orbit insertion maneuver, passing under the southern hemisphere of Mars and firing its main engines to slow the spacecraft by about one km/sec, leaving it in a 300 x 45000 km polar capture orbit with a 35 hour period.

Aerobraking was used over the next six months (March, 2006 – November, 2006) to lower the orbit to the 255 x 320 km science orbit. Science operations took place nominally from the end of solar conjunction in November 2006 to the start of the next solar conjunction in November 2008, roughly one Martian year.

* Science operations started from November, 2006 to November, 2008. MRO gathered information about Mars through the day-to-day activities of the orbiter.

* On 17 November, 2006 NASA announced the successful test of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter as an orbital communications relay. Using the NASA Spirit Rover over as the point of origin for the transmission, the MRO acted as a relay for transmitting data back to Earth.

* From November, 2008 to December, 2010 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was used to communicate with other landed missions.

* On 31 December, 2010, the orbiter’s primary mission ended (about five-and-a-half years after launch). The orbiter will be able to continue providing relay services for as much as another 5 years beyond its planned end date.

* On 4 August, 2011, NASA announced that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected what appears to be flowing salty water on Mars surface or subsurface.

The primary science instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are:

  1. High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE):The visible stereo imaging camera is designed to take the high-resolution images from orbit of anywhere on Mars and to provide unprecedented image quality, resolution and coverage at sub-meter scales. The instrument will be capable of panchromatic and color images.
  2. Context Camera (CTX): This camera will provide wide area views to help provide a context for high-resolution analysis of key spots on Mars provided by HiRISE and CRISM.
  3. Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM):This visible/near-infrared spectrometer will study the surface composition. It splits visible and near-infrared light of its images into hundreds of colors that identify minerals, especially those likely formed in the presence of water, in surface areas on Mars not much bigger than a football field.
  4. Mars Color Imager (MARCI): This weather camera will monitor clouds and dust storms.
  5. Mars Climate Sounder (MCS): The infrared radiometer will detect vertical variations of temperature, dust, and water vapour concentrations in the Martian atmosphere.
  6. Shallow Radar (SHARAD): This sounding radar will probe beneath the Martian surface to see if water ice is present at depths greater than one meter. SHARAD is provided by the Italian Space Agency to search for underground water.

There are three engineering instruments aboard MRO: 

  1. The Electra UHF communications and navigation package, which will be used as a relay between the Earth and future Mars missions. When future landers and rovers have landed safely on Mars, Electra will provide precise Doppler data which, when combined with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s position information, can accurately determine the location of the lander or rover on the surface of Mars.
  2. The optical navigation camera, which will be tested for possible navigational use on future planetary spacecraft
  3. The Ka-band telecommunications experiment package will be testing high performance Ka-band communications. Engineering accelerometer data will be used to study the structure of the martian atmosphere and tracking of the orbiter will be used to study the gravity field of Mars.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission was successful, it increased our knowledge of Mars’ composition and structure, from atmosphere to underground, in much greater detail than any previous orbiter.

Books and DVDs:

Books on Mars: Section with various books on topics related to Planet Mars.

Mars DVD: Includes documentaries, TV shows and movies.

Mars Exploration Rover Replica:  The Mars Exploration Rover is a 1/10th scale reproduction of the twin “Spirit” and “Opportunity” robotic geologists (from

Did you know?

– The next NASA Mars mission will be the Mars Phoenix Lander, followed by Mars Science Laboratory.

– What is Mars Aerobraking?  Aerobraking is a process that uses the friction of the Martian atmosphere to slow the spacecraft down. MRO is the first spacecraft designed from the ground up for aerobraking.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Links

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