Emily LakdawallaMar 08, 2006

Notes from this morning's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter press conference

They held the usual pre-arrival press conference this morning for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This press conference typically doesn't convey any information that people who have been paying attention don't already know. But it does generally herald the appearance of stories in the mainstream media about an upcoming mission event.

They talk about the capability of the spacecraft and the plan for its mission. Jim Graf, the Project Manager, showed this graphic, which I think is pretty fun:

Mars orbiter comparison
Mars orbiter comparison Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is considerably bigger than the other two orbiters active at Mars, Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and 2001 Mars Odyssey. In particular, its High Gain Antenna -- the round radio dish -- is more than twice the diameter of the dishes of the other two spacecraft, permitting much higher data transmission rates from Mars to Earth.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The much bigger dish on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is one of the things that will enable it to return incredible quantities of data, such as individual HiRISE images that are 28 Gigabits in size. (That's more data, they said during the press conference, than the rovers returned throughout their entire 90-sol nominal missions.)

The one piece of real news to come out of this press conference was a report on one mission success already: they have demonstrated the technology of a small camera called the Optical Navigation Camera. Jim Graf said (and this is an approximate quote, typed as I watched the conference): "It opens up a new way of positioning ourselves, finding out where we are relative to the planets, which we have not had in the past. In the past we've used radiometric methods, now we have optical confirmation." He showed a picture of Deimos relative to the star background, taken about a million kilometers from Mars with the optical navigation camera. (I've looked for that picture online but they don't seem to have posted it yet.) "With that, we can find our place on Mars down to a kilometer. We don't need this to accomplish the mission, but we are feeding forward into future missions," he said, for instance for navigating landers to the surface.

One of the other participants in the press conference was Dan McCleese, who is the Mars chief scientist at JPL and also the Principal Investigator on the Mars Climate Sounder. He talked at length about what they hope to do at Mars. We're working with Dan and his team, hosting the Mars Climate Sounder Team Website, so you can go there to learn more about the instrument (and I'll be adding lots more to that site as time goes on). Also, Mat Kaplan interviewed Dan last week on Planetary Radio to find out about Mars Climate Sounder's long road to Mars. You see, Mars Climate Sounder is the very last of the instruments that disappeared with Mars Observer that hasn't yet been reflown to Mars. They did try to refly it once -- it was central to Mars Climate Orbiter -- but that spacecraft didn't make it either. Dan says in his interview on Planetary Radio that he thinks they are the only instrument ever to have gotten a third chance at being flown after two spacecraft failures. Best of luck to them all.Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter begins its orbit insertion burn at 1:25 p.m. PST (21:25 UTC) on March 10. I will be on an airplane to Texas then so I'll have to find out what happens after I land, but A. J. S. Rayl will be watching events closely and posting news updates on our homepage.

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