This still from an animation shows NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter soaring over Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter hit a dizzying milestone on 15 May 2019: It completed 60,000 loops around the Red Planet at 5:59a.m. GMT (1:39p.m. EDT). On average, MRO takes 112 minutes to circle Mars, whipping around at about 3.4 kilometres per second (two miles per second).
Since entering orbit on 10 March 2006, the spacecraft has been collecting daily science about the planet’s surface and atmosphere, including detailed views with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera (HiRISE). HiRISE is powerful enough to see surface features the size of a dining room table from 300 kilometres (186 miles) above the surface.
Meanwhile, MRO is watching the daily weather and probing the subsurface for ice, providing data that can influence the designs of future missions that will take humans to Mars.
But MRO isn’t just sending back its own science; it serves in a network of relays that beam data back to Earth from NASA’s Mars rovers and landers. Later this month, MRO will hit another milestone: It will have relayed one terabit of data, largely from NASA’s Curiosity rover. If you’ve ever enjoyed one ...