Mars was the focus of multiple NASA initiatives and news releases this week as the federal space agency celebrated a decade of startling discoveries and named the latest round of participating scientists in Mars research projects. The news comes just as NASA announced the postponement of the launch of InSight, its mission to explore the deep interior of the red planet.
Ten years ago, on March 10, 2006, NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, and the mission has delivered a motherlode of information and images that have astounded scientists and captured the public’s imagination.
NASA has no less than seven missions currently active at Mars, but the MRO brings in more data than all the others put together. The MRO uses a highly developed telescopic camera resolution that can view areas on the surface of Mars that are smaller than the average driveway. An instrument called a spectrometer provides information about the the materials that make up the planet’s surface. The information has allowed NASA scientists and other experts to develop an understanding of Mars as a planet that is both dynamic and diverse, including the possible presence of water.
The MRO’s lifespan has surpassed original estimates by about seven years, with all of its science instruments still in working order. Along with its own data stream, MRO serves to coordinate the transmissions coming from robots on Mars’ surface.
The MRO data has shown scientists the ever changing nature of Mars, including evidence of previous ice ages, dust storms and seasonal weather changes. The information gathered from NASA’s MRO mission will come in handy for future missions to the red planet. In particular, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been studying various sites for possible manned surface missions to the planet, a mission now-retired astronaut Scott Kelly calls “doable” in an Inquisitr News report. MRO Project Scientist Richard Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the mission and commented in a media release.
“The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter remains a powerful asset for studying the Red Planet, with its six instruments all continuing capably a decade after orbit insertion. All this and the valuable infrastructure support that it provides for other Mars missions, present and future, make MRO a keystone of the current Mars Exploration Program.”
The Curiosity Mars rover mission landed on the planet’s surface in 2012 and NASA just announced the latest round of selections to the science team, comprising an additional 28 scientific researchers. The group includes six scientists new to the project. NASA selected the group from among 89 scientists from around the world who had submitted research papers they hoped to pursue with data from the Curiosity Mars rover mission. The NASA science team for the project now numbers about 150 along with over 300 collaborators helping with the research. The scientists and researchers involved in the project come from all over the United States as well as Canada and the U.K.
The NASA Curiosity Mars rover’s initial mission involved finding evidence that the planet could once have fostered life and that goal was accomplished in 2014. The extended mission involves studying Mars’ geological layers for evidence of how the planet evolved from a wet one that could have supported life forms to the current extreme desert conditions where even microbes cannot survive.
Along with the good news, another NASA Mars initiative couldn’t get off the ground – literally. NASA’s InSight — or Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — mission was set to launch to Mars this past week. Technical problems involving one of the instruments on the spacecraft resulted in suspension of preparations for the launch to Mars, which has been reset to a window beginning May 5, 2018. NASA is planning a landing on Mars on November 26, 2018. The goal of InSight is to probe the red planet’s interior to shed light on the processes at work in the evolution of rocky planets like Mars and Earth itself.
Other Mars oriented projects include the MAVEN mission, part of NASA’s Mars Scout program which was launched in November of 2013 with the goal of studying Mars’s atmosphere. NASA’s #JourneyToMars plans continue to forge ahead.
[Image via NASA]