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UA team heads for launch of mars reconnaissance orbiter and hirise


NASA plans to launch a new orbiter called Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on Aug. 10 as the next step in its ambitious Mars exploration program.

MRO will return more data about the red planet than all previous Mars missions combined, according to the U.S. space agency. More than 40 University of Arizona researchers, family members and friends leave for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida next week to cheer the launch. The soon-to-fly orbiter payload includes UA’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) -- the largest-diameter telescopic camera ever sent to another planet.

"HiRISE is going to both resolve old mysteries and raise new questions about Mars," said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred S. McEwen of UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "It’s also going to address specific questions related to future Mars exploration."

HiRISE, two other cameras, a spectrometer, a radar instrument and a radiometer aboard MRO will examine Mars from the top of its atmosphere to its underground layers. Scientists will use MRO to study the history and distribution of martian water, characterize landing sites for future missions -- including UA’s 2007 Phoenix Mission to Mars -- and provide a high-data-rate communications relay between Mars lander missions and Earth. Professor McEwen and his team will plan HiRISE observations, upload commands, monitor instrument performance, retrieve, process and analyze image data at the HiRISE Operations Center, called "HiROC," located in the Lunar and Planetary Lab’s Sonett Building on the UA campus in Tucson.

"The HiRISE team is more than excited to see the successful launch of MRO," HiRISE co-investigator and HiROC manager Eric Eliason said. " We’ve invested a lot of hard work to ensure HiRISE is the best possible camera for this mission. We’ve been practicing and rehearsing how to command our instrument. We’ve been developing software to process and analyze returned images and now we’re looking forward to finally having some real images of Mars."

The 145-pound (65 kg) HiRISE camera - the largest instrument on the MRO payload - features a 20-inch (half-meter) primary mirror - the largest on any telescope ever sent beyond Earth orbit. HiRISE will take ultra-sharp photographs over 3.5-mile (6 kilometer) swaths of the martian landscape, resolving rocks and other geologic features as small as 40 inches (one meter) across. It will take pictures in stereo and color, too, while it zooms along at more than 7,800 mph (3 and 1/2 km per second) about 190 miles (300 km) above Mars’ surface.

"HiRISE is capable of getting such views over any selected region of Mars, providing a bridge between orbital remote sensing and landed missions," McEwen said. MRO’s planned orbit is more than 20 percent lower than the average for any of the three current Mars orbiters, which are NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express. Low orbit is an advantage when it comes to seeing Mars at higher resolution than ever before.

The orbiter will reach Mars in March 2006. The spacecraft will gradually adjust its elliptical orbit to a circular orbit by aerobraking, a technique that creates drag using the friction of careful dips into the planet’s upper atmosphere. MRO’s 25-month primary science phase begins in November 2006. HiROC researchers say they expect to process 1,000 gigantic high-resolution images and 9,000 smaller high-resolution images during the science phase of the MRO mission.

"These are huge images, and we’ve been developing techniques to deal with images as large as 20,000 pixels wide and 60,000 pixels long," McEwen said. It would take 1,200 typical computer screens to display all of a large HiRISE image at full resolution. HiROC will acquire a large-format printer for making photographs up to five feet wide and 10-to-15 feet long, McEwen added. The HiRISE team has also been developing HiWeb, an Internet site that expert Mars scientists and the general public worldwide can use to suggest HiRISE imaging targets. HiRISE is called "the people’s camera" because anyone can suggest places on Mars for HiRISE to photograph and because the images will be made publicly available as soon as possible.

Operations staff member Ingrid Daubar and senior software developer Christian Schaller suggested a people-friendly metaphor for what they will do at HiROC. "Basically, you can think of what we do as aiming and focusing the HiRISE camera, pushing the button to take a picture, downloading the pictures to our computers and then processing the pictures," Daubar said. "Of course, it’s really much more complicated than that." The first milestone after launch will be when McEwen and the HiRISE team make their first observations of actual targets in the solar system on Sept. 8, 2005. They have targeted Earth’s moon and the Omega Centauri star cluster to calibrate HiRISE and check its in-flight performance. It may take several days for the big images to arrive at HiROC.

What will HiRISE look at first when the science mission begins in November 2006?

First planned targets include candidate landing sites for the 2007 Phoenix Mission to Mars, led by Peter Smith of UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "We actually have only a limited time before winter arrives at Mars’ north pole and lighting conditions deteriorate, so we want to do that quickly," McEwen said.

And if Spirit and Opportunity are still roving, photographing the Mars Expedition Rover landing sites is very high priority, McEwen said. Views of past Mars mission landing sites -- the successful Pathfinder and Viking missions, and possibly the unsuccessful Mars Polar Lander and Beagle 2 landing sites -- are also of interest, he added. Then HiRISE will tackle a huge list of science priorities, McEwen said. MRO weighs more than two tons fully fueled. To loft so big a spacecraft, NASA will use a powerful Atlas V launch vehicle for the first time on an interplanetary mission.

The mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., designed, built and tested the $40 million HiRISE camera.

Alfred S. McEwen | University of Arizona
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