NASA may change MRO orbit to support Mars 2020

WASHINGTON — NASA is contemplating altering the orbit of one among its oldest Mars spacecraft, a transfer supposed to help the Mars 2020 mission after touchdown however which may have an effect on each its science and help of different missions.

NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2005 with a set of six science devices, together with a high-resolution digital camera. The spacecraft has more and more been used as a communications relay, supporting spacecraft on the floor of Mars.

In 2018, involved about getting older parts on the spacecraft, NASA proposed a possible change to the spacecraft’s orbit. MRO is at the moment in a sun-synchronous orbit that passes over floor at midafternoon. NASA proposed shifting the spacecraft into an orbit with a crossing time later within the day to cut back the period of time in every orbit the spacecraft is within the planet’s shadow. That would cut back the workload on the spacecraft’s batteries and prolong their lives.

On the time, NASA stated it might defer a call till after the landings of the InSight mission in November 2018 and Mars 2020 in February 2021. With Mars 2020 now weeks away from touchdown, that call on whether or not to vary MRO’s orbit is coming due.

“Our intent is to decide following the touchdown and preliminary operations of Mars 2020,” Eric Ianson, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, stated at a Jan. 27 assembly of the Mars Exploration Program Evaluation Group (MEPAG).

Whereas the change in orbit is meant to increase MRO’s life, some Mars scientists are involved it may disrupt science. The completely different orbit would make it tougher to check new observations with earlier ones. It may additionally have an effect on MRO’s potential to offer help to different missions, such because the Curiosity rover.

“We need to ensure that we absolutely perceive the advantages of staying within the present orbit and adjusting the orbit,” Ianson stated. “I feel folks notionally have an thought about that, however I don’t assume we’ve absolutely examined it and had a very in-depth dialogue about it.”

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, stated on the MEPAG assembly {that a} potential change within the spacecraft’s orbit may have “just a few different problems,” reminiscent of help for each Curiosity and the European Area Company’s ExoMars mission, now scheduled for launch in 2022 after it missed its mid-2020 launch window.

“We’re going to revisit it” after the Mars 2020 touchdown, he stated, “and do what the actual trades are, and decide on what the perfect factor is to do for total Mars science.”

The communications infrastructure at Mars is a rising concern for scientists and mission planners. NASA has relied on orbiters launched primarily for science missions to function relays, together with MRO in addition to Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001, and MAVEN, launched in 2013.

Proposals lately for brand spanking new orbiter missions both dedicated to communications or with communications as one among their main roles have made little progress. The latest idea, offered at conferences in late 2020, known as for a community of three satellites with intersatellite hyperlinks to offer steady high-bandwidth communications for spacecraft each on the floor and in orbit. These spacecraft could possibly be developed in some sort of industrial partnership.

That idea is most carefully tied to Mars Ice Mapper, a mission nonetheless in early growth that can fly a radar mapping payload to search for subsurface ice deposits to help future robotic or human missions. That communications community, NASA officers stated, would enhance the quantity of information that mission may return by an element of 100.

Each Mars Ice Mapper and the proposed communications community won’t launch till later within the decade, if accepted. Ianson stated a call on altering MRO’s orbit to help Mars 2020 shall be made “within the coming months.”

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