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Mars-bound craft nearing the planet

A NASA spacecraft bound for Mars is nearing the end of its seven-month journey but still faces a white-knuckle arrival at a planet known for swallowing scientific probes, said the mission managers.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2006 14:35 IST

A NASA spacecraft bound for Mars is nearing the end of its seven-month journey but still faces a white-knuckle arrival at a planet known for swallowing scientific probes, said the mission managers.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, is on course to enter orbit around the Red Planet on March 10. If successful, it will spend the next two years photographing the surface and scouting for future landing sites.

The spacecraft is performing so well that engineers have cancelled two final manoeuvers to adjust its course in the last leg of the trip, said James Graf, project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Despite the optimism, the greatest challenge of the $720 million mission is yet to come. Within the last 15 years, NASA has lost two spacecraft during the tricky orbit-insertion phase around Mars. During the March 10 rendezvous, the spacecraft will fire its thrusters to slow down so that it can be caught by Mars’ gravity.

At one point during the manoeuver, the orbiter will fly behind Mars, temporarily cutting off radio contact with ground controllers. After it begins circling the planet, the spacecraft will for the next seven months adjust its orbit by dipping down into Mars’ upper atmosphere, using friction to slow its speed and lower its altitude.

Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, last August, the Reconnaissance Orbiter is loaded with cameras, antenna and radar. It is expected to collect more data on the Red Planet than all the previous Martian missions combined.

First Published: Feb 27, 2006 14:35 IST