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10 March 2006

triumph on Mars; budget catastrophe on Earth

TOP: Computer simulation of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter achieving high Mars orbit. The Martian atmosphere's friction will now slow the MRO as it descends to an orbit much closer to the Martian surface, close enough to imgage objects the size of a kitchen table.

BOTTOM: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission manager Jim Graf raises his arms in celebration of the orbiter's successful entry into orbit around Mars. Behind him is Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Dr. Charles Elachi, giving the "thumbs up." (NASA/JPL photos.)

[Pasadena, California is the home of the California Institute of Technology, and its NASA contractor, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which designs and operates NASA's deep space robot probes.]


Friday 10 March 2006 19:47 USA East Coast Time

NASA probe "dodges bullet"
to achieve Mars orbit

by Dan Whitcomb

PASADENA, California (Reuters) -- A $450 million NASA spacecraft dropped smoothly into orbit around Mars on Friday, successfully completing a risky make-or-break maneuver in its two-year mission to search the red planet for life and find landing spots for future astronauts.

Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena erupted in cheers when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which left Earth in August, signaled that it had achieved orbit around a planet that has defeated two-thirds of the probes sent there.

"It's almost like dodging a bullet," said Dan McCleese, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's chief Mars scientist. "It's going to take a few trips around the planet to know for sure, but from what we can see so far it's a near-perfect entry into orbit."

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will spend six months making some 500 trips around Mars, reeling itself in from an elongated 35-hour loop to a nearly circular two-hour orbit, before starting its primary science mission.

The most advanced vessel ever sent to another planet, with instruments that can study an object on the Martian surface the size of a desk, the orbiter will search for signs of life and scout sites where astronauts may land years from now.

It will fly closer to the surface than previous missions and send back 10 times as much data as all previous probes put together, while studying every level of the planet from underground layers to the upper atmosphere.

Mars has proven notoriously difficult for Earth explorers and, after losing two of the last four orbiters they have sent there, NASA scientists said were holding their breath on Friday.

The ship, which had been cruising to Mars at 11,000 mph (17,600 kph), spun its main thrusters forward and fired them for 27 minutes, effectively slamming on the brakes. About an hour after the burn began, the ship, which lost contact with mission controllers when it went behind Mars, emerged and signaled that it was on course.


If the spacecraft had failed to achieve orbit it would have flown past Mars and off into space -- a fate that befell a probe Japan sent in 1998. Japanese mission controllers managed to gain control of the Nozomi orbiter and send it back toward Mars, but it was damaged by solar flares and ultimately lost.

"Everybody was on pins and needles," said McCleese, who worked on both of the previous failed orbiter missions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "This isn't just a mission, this is careers. This is the future of JPL. This has been five years and there is an awful lot of emotion wrapped up in it."

McCleese said that while the orbiter had survived the moment of greatest danger, the spacecraft was still at risk as it circled the planet, particularly from capricious Martian dust storms disrupting the atmosphere.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter program was expected to cost a total of about $720 million. That includes $450 million for the spacecraft and its instruments, $90 million for the launch and $180 million for mission operations, science processing and support.

© Reuters 2006. All rights reserved.

~ ~ ~
(Sky and Telescope magazine)
Friday 10 March 2006

NASA Eludes
Martian Ghoul, Again

Score one more round for humanity against the dreaded Martian Ghoul ... at least for now. At 5:16 p.m. EST (22:16 UT) today, NASA received a signal from its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) confirming that the $710-million spacecraft had swung behind Mars and successfully fired its braking rocket for 27 minutes. Over the next few months, the 2,180-kilogram (4,806-pound) craft will periodically dip through Mars's tenuous upper atmosphere to "aerobrake" from its current highly elongated orbit into its planned 305-kilometer-high (190-mile-high) circular orbit.

The Martian "ghoul" is the mythical beast that has struck down about two-thirds of NASA and Soviet spacecraft from the 1960s to the late 1990s. Since then, planet Earth has made a stirring comeback. If MRO successfully enters its correct science orbit, it will join NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiters, giving our species an unprecedented armada of four functioning spacecraft orbiting another planet. And NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity continue to amaze scientists and engineers by operating long past their designed lifetimes.

MRO's high-resolution camera will image rocks and other features as small as a kitchen table. Other instruments will provide unparalleled spectral resolution, allowing geologists to map Mars's mineral and chemical composition. MRO will return data to Earth at a rate 10 times greater than any previous Mars orbiter.

NASA launched MRO from Cape Canaveral on August 12, 2005. If all goes well with the aerobraking, the orbiter will begin science operations this November. But MRO will also be conducting important science during the aerobraking phase. "Our primary science phase won't begin until November, but we'll actually be studying the changeable structure of Mars's atmosphere by sensing the density of the atmosphere at different altitudes each time we fly through it during aerobraking," says MRO project scientist Richard Zurek (NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory).

The successful rocket burn comes at a critical point in the history of space science. Budget cuts by NASA administrators have wiped out major science missions and are devastating the agency's space-science program in general. These cuts threaten the destruction of an infrastructure built up over many years that has enabled missions like MRO to be developed, and which facilitated America's rise to the leadership role in planetary exploration and space-based astronomy.

© 2006 Sky Publishing Corp.

(Sky and Telescope magazine)
Wednesday 8 March 2006

NASA Science
in Free Fall

by Jonathan McDowell

[photo: Among the many victims in the latest round of deep cuts was the Dawn asteroid rendezvous mission.]

NASA's astronomy program is in a state of crisis as a growing number of space missions are falling to the budgetary ax. Smaller programs are suffering most in the 2006 budget as funding is siphoned toward human spaceflight. Additional cancellations are projected in the 2007 budget partly to help finance the James Webb Space Telescope and Hubble Space Telescope cost overruns. The coup de grâce is a whopping 15 percent overall cut in 2009.

In January, NASA officials canceled the high-energy X-ray Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuStar) Explorer mission. On March 2nd NASA's new head of science, Mary Cleave, terminated the Dawn asteroid mission. That craft had only a few months of work left to go before becoming launch ready. Cleave's announcement about Dawn came shortly after she testified to a hostile Congressional panel about the cuts.

Congressional leaders challenged both the internal and external priorities affecting the budget. The science community questioned whether large, overbudget missions should be protected at the expense of losing both the research jobs needed to analyze the data and the small missions needed to round out a healthy science program.

It's very unusual for missions to be cancelled so close to launch. The Dawn termination apparently saves only $30 million out of a $370 million project, and Dawn's cost overrun was mostly due to the impact of previous delays imposed by NASA headquarters rather than technical issues. The NuStar cancellation might be the most troubling, however. Here was a mission that was approved, on budget, and without technical problems. Killing something in such good shape is pretty much unheard of and belies earlier statements by NASA administrator Mike Griffin that missions were only to be delayed rather than canceled.

Funds earmarked for managers and users of existing space observatories, like the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, have also been cut by millions. This has raised further threats of layoffs and job shortages. This is even true for Hubble, where the influx of extra money in the 2007 budget to support the proposed servicing mission won't, by and large, be going toward astronomers' salaries.

The 2007 budget also axed the Terrestrial Planet Finder, delayed the SIM interferometry testbed, and slated the SOFIA airborne infrared observatory for almost-certain cancellation. SOFIA was in the final stages of construction. The Beyond Einstein series of high-energy missions, including Constellation-X and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), is being kept alive with only a trickle of funding. Even ground-based projects such as the long-planned Keck Interferometer outrigger telescopes have been sent to a premature grave.

Morale is plummeting in the US space science community as senior scientists see years of work evaporate with a stroke of the financial pen, and young astronomy PhDs are wondering whether a career in the field is even possible. How US astronomy will take shape in the coming months and years remains in question as the food fight over how to reslice the shrinking funding pie begins.

© 2006 Sky Publishing Corp.


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