March 24, 2006

Mars Orbiter returns first images

By Gina Keating

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on
Friday returned the first test images from its super
high-resolution cameras, the most powerful photographic
equipment to be trained on the Red Planet in NASA's search for
water and life.

The black-and-white photos, taken by three cameras, show
deep channels and layered surface debris around the planet's
midsection, features that probably were formed by water, said
Alfred McEwen, a mission scientist and University of Arizona
professor of planetary science.

The images were taken from an altitude of 1,547 miles above
the surface, about three times higher than the orbiter will be
when it formally begins its science mission in November.

The spacecraft, which reached orbit on March 10, is to map
about 1 percent of the Martian surface for future landings by
robotic probes and human astronauts.

The resolution of the test images is comparable to those
captured by the less powerful cameras of three other orbiters
circling Mars, but the tests show that cameras survived the
seven-month space trip that began in August.

NASA scientists will use the images to calibrate the
cameras, and will later combine the images to create broader
view and to add color. They are available for viewing at

Over the next seven months, the orbiter will "aerobrake,"
dipping into Mars' atmosphere and gradually changing its
elliptical orbit into a near-circle about 185 miles above the
planet's surface. In the lower orbit, scientists will be able
to distinguish surface objects as small as 3 feet (1 meter)
wide, McEwen said.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has a suite of onboard
instruments to map the planet's subsurface minerals, monitor
its atmosphere and look for evidence of subsurface ice or

"At this point we have an idea that water is probably
abundant on Mars in the form of ice," McEwen said. "It's not a
matter of finding water on Mars but learning its importance in
climate change ... and clearly it has been important to shaping
the landscape."

The orbiter's first mission is to find landing sites for
the Phoenix Mars Lander, set to arrive on Mars in May 2008 to
dig for subsurface water ice, and for the 2009 arrival of the
Mars Science Laboratory, a larger version of the twin robotic
geologists Spirit and Opportunity, which have been traversing
the planet's surface since 2004.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has the most advanced and
powerful instruments of any of the four science satellites
circling the planet and will return more than 10 times the
quantity of data than all other probes combined, McEwen said.