Mars orbiter prepares for next year's InSight lander arrival

Artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter(Credit: NASA)

Space travel is a constant exercise in forward planning, with mission control thinking years and sometimes decades in advance. A case in point is NASA's InSight Mars lander, which is scheduled to touchdown on the Red Planet on September 26, 2016. This may be more than a year away, but the space agency is already moving its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) into a new orbit to provide communications support during the landing.

According to NASA, the MRO will carry out an orbital correction burn today that will use six of the spacecraft's intermediate thrusters, and last 77 seconds. This will place the unmanned orbiter on a new trajectory that will place it in line of sight of the InSight lander as it enters the atmosphere and sets down on the surface. That will allow the MRO to act as a data store and communications relay for InSight during the maneuver, as it did for the Curiosity mission in 2012 and the Phoenix mission in 2008. It will also be the MRO's biggest orbital maneuver since 2006.

After the orbital burn is completed, the MRO will carry on with its primary mission of providing information on the Martian surface, subsurface, and atmosphere as well as acting as a communications relay for rovers currently operating on the planet.

NASA says that it will carry out further orbit changes in October 2016 and April 2017, with burn times exceeding three minutes as it shifts into a near-polar orbit designed to cross the equator at 3:00 am and 3:00 pm local Martian time. This will leave the orbiter with 413 lb (187 kg) of hydrazine propellant, which is enough for 19 years of normal operations.

"Without making this orbit change maneuver, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be unable to hear from InSight during the landing, but this will put us in the right place at the right time," says MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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