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

About the Spacecraft

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.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter used a new spacecraft design by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. 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.


Spacecraft Mass: 2180 kg (includes 1149 kg of propellants)
Height: 6.5 m (1 ft)
Width 1.6 m (45 ft)

Project Management

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).  Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor for the project. Atlas V rocket was provided by International Launch Services, a Lockheed Martin joint venture and Lockheed Martin Space Systems 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 a powerful camera that is able to spot objects as small as a dinner plate.
  2. To identify surface minerals on Mars:
  3. To detect any shorelines of ancient seas and lakes.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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 is capable of panchromatic and color images.
  2. Shallow Radar (SHARAD): This sounding radar probes 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.
  3. Context Camera (CTX): This camera provides wide area views to help provide a context for high-resolution analysis of key spots on Mars provided by HiRISE and CRISM.
  4. Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM): This visible / near-infrared spectrometer studies the surface composition.
  5. Mars Color Imager (MARCI): This weather camera monitors clouds and dust storms.
  6. Mars Climate Sounder (MCS): The infrared radiometer detects vertical variations of temperature, dust and water vapour concentrations in the Martian atmosphere.


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

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.

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

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Links

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