The next U.S. mission to Mars is set to launch from Florida soon to examine the red planet in the sharpest detail, yet. The first launch opportunity comes Wednesday, August 10, but can go anytime until the end of the month. The spacecraft will be the largest to circle the planet, with big capabilities to match. Since 1997, the U.S. space agency, NASA, has been dispatching orbiters and companion landers to Mars about every two years, to seek a better geological understanding of Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor. It especially wants to learn if conditions ever existed that could have supported life. The next in the series is the huge Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, two-stories tall and nearly 15-meters wide.
The head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, Douglas McCuistion says the effort now moves into a more intensive phase of investigation. “So this is a big mission for us. It’s big in the strategic role in the Mars exploration program, it’s the biggest orbiter sent to Mars in the past 30 years, carrying the most powerful suite of remote sensing instruments ever deployed to another planet,” he said. NASA says the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will have better capabilities for understanding the red planet’s surface, subsurface, and atmosphere than the American and European satellites now orbiting, the two U.S. robotic rovers on the ground, or any previous mission.
“It’s a weather satellite, it’s a geological surveyor, it’s a pathfinder for future missions,” said NASA project scientist Richard Zurek. He says the new orbiter, known by its English initials MRO, carries six instruments. Some are designed to seek clues to the water most planetary scientists believe once flowed on Mars and is a key to life. They can identify water-related minerals and penetrate the ground about one kilometer to seek layers of rock, ice, and water if it is present.