In support of Mars 2020, NASA can adjust MRO orbit

In support of Mars 2020, NASA can adjust MRO orbit

NASA is considering shifting the trajectory of one of its longest surviving Mars spacecraft, a step expected to support the post-landing Mars 2020 mission. Still, it may have an impact on both its research and other mission aid. With a set of six scientific instruments, such as a high-resolution telescope, NASA deployed the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in the year 2005. Increasingly, satellites have been utilized as a communications gateway to assist spacecraft on the surface of Mars. NASA suggested a possible adjustment to the spacecraft’s orbit in 2018, worrying about ageing parts on the spacecraft. The MRO is actually in a mid-afternoon sun-synchronous orbit that passes over the surface.

NASA considered putting the spacecraft into the orbit later in the day with the crossing period to minimize the period in every orbit that the spacecraft is now in the shadow of the planet. That would lower the strain on the batteries of the spacecraft and prolong their lives. NASA stated that it would delay a determination till after the InSight mission’s landings in November 2018 and Mars 2020 in 2021 February. This decision as to whether to adjust MRO’s orbit is due, with Mars 2020 already weeks away from arrival. “We intend to determine the Mars 2020 landing as well as initial operations,” Eric Ianson, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program chief, stated in a January 27 conference of MEPAG (Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group).

If the shift in orbit is supposed to prolong the life of MRO, some Mars scientists are worried that it might interrupt research. The multiple orbits would make it harder to equate recent findings with older ones. MRO’s ability to assist other missions, including the Curiosity rover, may also be impaired. Ianson stated, “We would like to ensure we completely appreciate the advantages of remaining in the present orbit and changing the orbit.”  “I think that people have an understanding about that conceptually, but I wouldn’t think we’ve explored it completely and had a particularly in-depth conversation about it.”

At the MEPAG conference, Michael Meyer, chief scientist in charge of Mars Exploration Program, stated that a possible shift in the orbit of the spacecraft may have “a few other problems,” such as funding for Curiosity as well as the ExoMars mission of the European Space Agency, now planned for deployment in 2022 after it skipped its launch window in the mid-2020. After Mars 2020 landing, “we are going to recreate it,” he stated, “and do what the true trade is, as well as decide on what to do differently for Mars science as a whole.” An increasing problem for scientists and mission managers is the connectivity system on Mars.

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