- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — A NASA spacecraft successfully slipped into orbit around Mars yesterday, joining a trio of orbiters already circling the Red Planet.

Scientists cheered after the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter emerged from the planet’s shadow and signaled to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that the maneuver was a success.

“Oh, I am very relieved,” project manager Jim Graf said minutes later. “It was picture perfect.”

The two-ton spacecraft is the most sophisticated to arrive at Mars and is expected to gather more data on the Red Planet than all previous Martian missions combined.

It will explore Mars in low orbit for four years and is expected to churn out the most detailed information about the planet and its climate and landscape.

In the fall, the orbiter will begin exploring the Martian atmosphere, scan the surface for evidence of ancient water and scout for future landing sites to send robotic and possibly human explorers.

The $720 million mission is managed by the JPL in Pasadena, Calif.

After a seven-month, 310 million-mile journey, the orbiter arrived at Mars yesterday for the risky orbit-insertion phase. Project managers had been nervous because of Mars’ reputation for swallowing scientific probes.

But the Reconnaissance Orbiter performed the move without problem.

As it neared the planet, it fired its main propulsion engines for 27 minutes to slow itself down so the planet’s gravity could pull it into orbit. At one point during the burn, the spacecraft disappeared behind Mars — as engineers had planned — and was temporarily out of radio contact with controllers.

Mission control was visibly tense as it awaited word from the orbiter, which reappeared and signaled that it had entered into an elliptical orbit around Mars that will swing it as close as 250 miles above the surface.

The spacecraft will spend seven months dipping into the upper atmosphere to shrink the orbit.

The Reconnaissance Orbiter is the fourth eye on the Martian sky, joining NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, which have been mapping the planet the past few years. On the surface, the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity continue their robotic geology missions.

The Reconnaissance Orbiter won’t beam back images or data until November.

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