Despite disquieting news about the future of NASA's science budget, researchers took time on 10 March to celebrate the arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the Red Planet. The spacecraft dropped safely into Mars orbit after traveling 500 million kilometers since its 12 August 2005 launch.
"Our spacecraft has finally become an orbiter," said a relieved Jim Graf, project manager for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The $450 million probe carries a sophisticated suite of instruments and has the ability to send back an order of magnitude more data than previous Mars orbiters. That abundance of information will help researchers determine "when water was on the surface and where it is now," adds project scientist Richard Zurek.
But there is still a long wait before the mission begins to use all its toys. Besides a spectrometer to map water-related minerals and a radar designed to locate water locked underground, the onboard equipment includes a telescopic camera to peer at small features on the surface, a weather-monitoring camera, and a radiometer to examine variations in dust and water vapor in the Martian atmosphere. The craft will gradually sink into a more circular orbit during the next 6 months before the instruments will begin gathering data. That added time, though, is worth it, say planetary scientists. The spacecraft carries almost two-thirds less fuel than if it went directly into a productive orbit--leaving more room for science payloads.