UK joy as weather probe reaches Mars

UK scientists were celebrating yesterday after the most complex spacecraft ever sent to Mars arrived safely at the Red Planet.
For Professor Fred Taylor it was third time lucky – his climate experiments have been lost on two previous probes sent to Mars.
But yesterday Nasa confirmed that the latest probe, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, had gone successfully into orbit after a seven-month, 310million mile journey from Earth.
Scientists spent a nerve-wracking time on Friday after the spacecraft fired its main engines for a 27-minute burn to go into orbit.
They had to wait for the craft to reappear from behind the planet before they could be sure the manouevre had been successful.
Professor Taylor is the lead scientist behind the Mars Cimate Sounder which was designed and built by astronomers from Oxford, Cardiff and Reading universities.
He has been waiting for 25 years to fly his “weather station” which will unlock the secrets of the martian climate.
His first attempt failed in 1992 when a probe called Mars Observer blew up when it reached the planet.
Eight years later his second bid aboard Mars Climate Orbiter also failed – the craft crashed because Nasa engineers unbelievably mixed up imperial and metric measurements.
A relieved Professor Taylor, of Oxford, said: “This is Mars’s first weather satellite. We want to understand why conditions on Mars changed so much from warm and wet a billion years ago to the cold, dry desert we see today.”
His experiments will monitor the temperatures in different levels of the martian atmosphere and the amount of dust and water vapour.
The approach to Mars became known as the Bermuda triangle of space – 22 of 35 missions sent there since the 1960s have failed.
But today Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter joins three other unmanned satellites around the Red Planet – including Europe’s Mars Express which is itself producing incredible results.
The new £282million Nasa craft will not land but will photograph the planet in greater detail than ever before from 200 miles up to help find locations for manned flights ordered by President Bush.
The unmanned probe’s major objective is to learn the history of water on Mars.
Instruments will analyse the make-up of surface rocks and detect whether water still lies beneath the ground.
The two and a half ton craft will also communicate with Nasa’s robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity which are still running around on Mars more than two years after they landed.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will spend the next seven months swooping into the Martian atmosphere to slow it down and place it in its final orbit.
Yesterday the probe was in a new 35.4 hour orbit of Mars after the engine firing slowed its speed down by 2,200mph.
Its path was carrying it from a height of 28,000 miles above the planet to a low point of 264.5 miles.
Regular swoops into the Martian air will continue to slow it down before it comes to a level height and can begin its work later this year.
The Nasa illustration above shows the technique – called aerobraking – which is used because it saves around 70 per cent on fuel compared to going directly into the desired orbit.

© Paul Sutherland. Unauthorised reproduction forbidden.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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