As of Monday, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has officially clocked an impressive 50,000 laps of the Red Planet. The veteran spacecraft has been instrumental in NASA's ongoing efforts to unravel the secrets of Mars, and it's not done yet, with mission scientists anticipating years of mileage yet to come.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on the 12th of August 2005 with a mission to image the Red Planet from orbit, and to search for evidence of water existing on Mars for prolonged periods of time. The probe successfully achieved Mars orbit in March 2006, and, following an initial adjustment period, has been circling the Red Planet in a 155 to 196-mile (250 to 316-km)-high near-polar orbit ever since.
Since arriving in orbit around the Red Planet, the MRO has captured a staggering 90,000 images with its Context Camera (CTX). Each image covers a swathe of land some 18.6 miles (30 km) wide. If stitched together, the CTX imagery would cover an incredible 99.1 percent of the Martian surface. This was achieved despite orbital and downlink limitations, and the Red Planet's often uncooperative weather.
On top of mapping basically the entirety of Mars, the CTX, which has a resolution of roughly 20 ft (6 m) per pixel, has imaged 60.4 percent of the planet multiple times, allowing scientists to create stereoscopic views and topographical maps. Another benefit of taking multiple shots of the same region is to see how the surface of the Red Planet changes over time.
One of the most extreme changes observed in the CTX data are 200 fresh impact craters that have scarred the surface of Mars in the time that the MRO has been in orbit. These impacts have been observed to dredge up ice that had been buried beneath the surface.
Once the CTX identifies a feature of interest, the MRO's precision High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) can step in to make more in-depth observations. HiRISE imagery accounts for roughly 3 percent of the Martian surface, which sounds positively lacklustre compared to the efforts of the CTX. But this isn't really a fair comparison. HiRISE has a far higher spatial resolution than CTX, meaning that it can zoom in much farther than the broad strokes camera.
While the CTX and HiRISE focus on the minutia of the Martian surface, the MRO's Mars Color Imager, observes the entire planet every day in order to characterize daily, seasonal, and yearly variations in the Red Planet's weather.
The MRO is a true Swiss army Satellite, and so is not limited to imagery alone. Alongside carrying an advanced spectrometer and atmospheric sensor, the spacecraft acts as a communication conduit between NASA's Curiosity and Opportunity rovers and their handlers back on Earth.
These rovers, which are trundling across the surface of the Red Planet as we speak, are soon to be joined by the upcoming InSight lander, which is slated for launch sometime in May this year. The MRO has been instrumental in imaging potential landing sites for InSight.
Prior to the lander's arrival at Mars in November 2018, the MRO will perform an orbital adjustment that will allow the satellite to receive radio transmissions from the newcomer, as it undertakes a danger-fraught descent to the Martian surface.