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 . Space History News - People and events in development of space travel Space History News - People and events in development of space travel Space History News - People and events in development of space travel  

Space History for August 12

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Joseph Lister performed the first antiseptic surgery, using carbolic acid (phenol) to clean the wounds of an 11 year old boy whose leg had been run over by a cart. The technique led to post-operation infection mortality rates dropping from 50% to 15%.

Thomas Edison made the first sound recording, of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

1877 07:48:00 GMT
Asaph Hall discovered Mars' moon Deimos at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., prior to discovering the larger Phobos on 18 August.

Paul Henry discovered asteroid #227 Philosophia.

C. H. F. Peters discovered asteroid #234 Barbara.

Born, Erwin Schrodinger, Austrian physicist (had a cat) (Nobel 1933 "for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory")

Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrodinger (12 August 1887 - 4 January 1961) was an Austrian physicist famous for his contributions to quantum mechanics, especially the Schrodinger equation, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1933. At this time, however, it is still unclear whether Schrodinger's cat is alive or dead. (see, e.g., for more information)

Born, Otto Lyudvigovich Struve, Russian-American astronomer, one of the most distinguished and prolific astronomers of the mid-20th century (over 900 journal articles and books)

Died, James E. Keeler, US astronomer (studied Saturn's rings, first to observe the gap in Saturn's rings now known as the Encke Gap), founded and edited the Astrophysical Journal with George Hale

W. Lorenz discovered asteroid #685 Hermia.

Died, John Philip Holland, developer of the first submarine

K. Reinmuth discovered asteroids #1000 Piazzia and #1025 Riema.

NASA and the USAF launched X-15 mission # 19 in which USAF Major Robert M White flew an X-15 to a maximum altitude of 41.605 km with a maximum speed of 2852 kph (Mach 2.52).

1960 09:36:00 GMT
NASA launched Echo 1 into Earth orbit, the first successful communications satellite, to relay voice and TV signals.

Following the failure of the Delta rocket carrying Echo 1 on 13 May 1960, Echo 1A (commonly referred to as just Echo 1) was successfully put in a 1519 x 1687 km orbit on 12 August 1960. The spacecraft was a 30.48 meter (100 foot) diameter balloon of mylar polyester film 0.5 mil (0.0127 mm) thick, designed and successfully used as a passive communications reflector for transcontinental and intercontinental telephone (voice), radio, and television signals. The first two-way voice communications was bounced off Echo I on 13 August 1960 between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Richardson, Texas. The first reported picture transmission took place on 19 August, from Cedar Rapids to Richardson.

Since its shiny surface was also reflective of visible light, Echo 1A was visible to the unaided eye over most of the Earth. Brighter than most stars, it was probably seen by more people than any other man-made object in space. It had 107.9-MHz beacon transmitters for telemetry purposes, powered by five nickel-cadmium batteries charged by 70 solar cells mounted on the balloon. Because of the large area-to-mass ratio of the spacecraft, data for calculation of atmospheric density and solar pressure could be, and was, acquired. The spacecraft was also used to evaluate the technical feasibility of satellite triangulation during the latter portion of its life. Echo 1A re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 24 May 1968.

To communicate via Echo 1, Bell Labs created a 50-foot (15-meter) horn-shaped antenna. Later, while calibrating the antenna, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected cosmic microwave background radiation, commonly interpreted as the first solid evidence of the Big Bang, for which they won the Nobel Prize. (See for a different interpretation of the CMB radiation.)

See also

Static inflation test of Echo satellite in Weeksville, N.C., NASA photo ID: EL-1996-00052

1962 07:55:00 GMT
USSR launched Vostok 4 carrying Pavel Popovich, the fourth Soviet cosmonaut to orbit Earth, resulting in the first time there were two people in space simultaneously.

Vostok 4 was launched 12 August 1962, one day after Vostok 3, with cosmonaut Pavel R. Popovich on board. The spacecraft consisted of a nearly spherical cabin covered with ablative material. There were three small portholes and external radio antennas. Radios, a life support system, instrumentation, and an ejection seat were contained in the manned cabin, which was attached to a service module that carried chemical batteries, orientation rockets, the main retro system, and added support equipment for the total system. The service module was separated from the manned cabin on reentry. The flight lasted 64 orbits over 70.7 hours, and was in an orbit close to Vostok 3. Minimum distance between the two spacecraft was approximately 5 km. Radio communications were maintained between the two spacecraft and Earth during the flight. For the first time, TV pictures were transmitted from the spacecraft and broadcast by the Soviet TV system. A series of scientific and biomedical experiments was also performed. The spacecraft landed on 15 August in the Karaganda region at 48:09 N 71:51 E. Vostok 3 and 4 landed successfully six minutes apart a short distance from each other.

Vostok 4 was a joint flight with Vostok 3, for acquisition of experimental data on the possibility of establishing a direct link between two space ships; coordination of astronauts' operations; and to study of the effects of identical spaceflight conditions on the human organism. The launch of Popovich proceeded exactly on schedule, with the spacecraft launching within 0.5 seconds of the planned time, entering orbit just a few kilometers away from Nikolayev in Vostok 3. Popovich had problems with his life support system, resulting in the cabin temperature dropping to 10 degrees Centigrade and the humidity to 35%. The cosmonaut still managed to conduct experiments, including taking color motion pictures of the terminator between night and day and of the cabin interior.

Despite the conditions, Popovich felt able to go for the full four days scheduled. But before the mission, Popovich had been briefed to tell ground control that he was 'observing thunderstorms' if he felt the motion sickness that had plagued Titov and needed to return on the next opportunity. Unfortunately, he actually did report seeing thunderstorms over the Gulf of Mexico, and ground control took this as a request for an early return. He was ordered down a day early, landing within a few mintutes of Nikolayev. Only on the ground was it discovered that he had been willing to go the full duration, and that ground control had mistakenly thought he had given the code.

1971 05:30:00 GMT
USSR launched Cosmos 434 from Baikonur, the final LK Moon lander test using the T2K version.

USSR launched Cosmos 434 on 12 August 1971, whose initial orbital data was similar to Soyuz-type flight data but with a later Lunar or interplanetary orbital launch platform. Analysis at the time indicated it was a possible test of new Lunar-type engine system; it was subsequently determined to be the final LK Moon lander test using the T2K version - ten years later, the spacecraft was due to re-enter over Australia soon after the Skylab scare. The Soviet Union told the people of Australia not to worry, it was only an experimental Lunar cabin - the first inadvertent admission that their manned Lunar project even existed!

Cosmos 434 was the final space test of the LK Moon lander test using the T2K version. It followed the same program as Cosmos 398. The LK ("Lunniy korabl" - Lunar craft) was the Soviet Lunar lander - the Russian counterpart of the American LM Lunar Module. The LK was to have landed a Soviet citizen on the Moon before the Americans, winning the Moon race, which did not happen for a variety of reasons. Because the translunar payload of the Russian N1 rocket was only 70% that of the American Saturn V, the LK differed in many ways from the LM. It had a different landing profile; it was only 1/3 the weight of the LM; it was limited to a crew of one; it had no docking tunnel (the cosmonaut had to space walk from the LK to the LOK lunar orbiter). Unlike the LM, the LK would not use a separate descent stage to go from Lunar orbit to landing on the surface. A braking stage, the Block D, was to take the LK out of Lunar orbit and slow it to 100 m/s at an altitude of 4 km above the Lunar surface. From there, the LK would use the engines of its Block E stage to soft land on the Moon. The Block E would also serve as the ascent stage to return the LK to Lunar orbit.

The LK consisted of four primary modules: 1) the LPU landing gear, to allow landing on the Lunar surface, which would remain behind on the Lunar surface, acting as a launch pad for the rest of the LK; 2) the Block E rocket stage, to soft land the LK on the Moon and return it to Lunar orbit; 3) the Lunar Cabin, the pressurised semi-spherical cabin where the cosmonaut would be located; and 4) the Integrated Orientation System, a pod of small thrusters to orient the spacecraft. Atop the pod was the large hexagonal grid of the Kontakt docking system.

1974 06:28:00 GMT
USSR launched Cosmos 672 from the Baikonur cosmodrome aboard a Soyuz rocket, an unmanned precursor to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program (ASTP).

The first manned free flight in the Approach and Landing Test (ALT) of NASA's Shuttle test orbiter Enterprise was conducted.

1977 06:39:00 GMT
NASA launched the High Energy Astronomy Observatory 1 (HEAO 1) satellite into Earth orbit, the first in a series of three to continue X-ray and gamma-ray studies.

1978 15:12:00 GMT
NASA's ISEE 3/ICE Comet Giacobini-Zinner and Comet Halley encounter mission was launched.

The Explorer-class heliocentric spacecraft, International Sun-Earth Explorer 3, was part of the mother/daughter/heliocentric mission (ISEE 1, 2, and 3). The purposes of the mission were: (1) to investigate solar-terrestrial relationships at the outermost boundaries of the Earth's magnetosphere; (2) to examine in detail the structure of the solar wind near the Earth and the shock wave that forms the interface between the solar wind and Earth's magnetosphere; (3) to investigate motions of and mechanisms operating in the plasma sheets; and, (4) to continue the investigation of cosmic rays and solar flare emissions in the interplanetary region near 1 AU.

The three spacecraft carried a number of complementary instruments for making measurements of plasmas, energetic particles, waves, and fields. The mission thus extended the investigations of previous IMP spacecraft. The launch of three coordinated spacecraft in this mission permitted the separation of spatial and temporal effects. ISEE 3, launched 12 August 1978, had a spin axis normal to the ecliptic plane and a spin rate of about 20 rpm. It was initially placed into an elliptical halo orbit about the Lagrangian libration point (L1) 235 Earth radii on the sunward side of the Earth, where it continuously monitored changes in the near-Earth interplanetary medium. In conjunction with the mother and daughter spacecraft, which had eccentric geocentric orbits, this mission explored the coupling and energy transfer processes between the incident solar wind and the Earth's magnetosphere. In addition, the heliocentric ISEE 3 spacecraft also provided a near-Earth baseline for making cosmic-ray and other planetary measurements for comparison with corresponding measurements from deep-space probes. ISEE 3 was the first spacecraft to use the halo orbit.

In 1982, ISEE 3 began the magnetotail and comet encounter phases of its mission. A maneuver was conducted on 10 June 1982 to remove the spacecraft from the halo orbit around the L1 point and place it in a transfer orbit involving a series of passages between Earth and the L2 (magnetotail) Lagrangian libration point. After several passes through the Earth's magnetotail, with gravity assists from Lunar flybys in March, April, September and October of 1983, a final close Lunar flyby (119.4 km above the Moon's surface) on 22 December 1983 ejected the spacecraft out of the Earth-Moon system and into a heliocentric orbit ahead of the Earth, on a trajectory intercepting that of Comet Giacobini-Zinner. At this time, the spacecraft was renamed International Cometary Explorer (ICE). A total of fifteen propulsive maneuvers (four of which were planned in advance) and five Lunar flybys were needed to carry out the transfer from the halo orbit to an escape trajectory from the Earth-Moon system into a heliocentric orbit.

The primary scientific objective of ICE was to study the interaction between the solar wind and a cometary atmosphere. As planned, the spacecraft traversed the plasma tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner on 11 September 1985, and made in situ measurements of particles, fields, and waves. It also transited between the Sun and Comet Halley in late March 1986, when other spacecraft (Giotto, Planet-A, MS-T5, VEGA) were also in the vicinity of Comet Halley on their early March comet rendezvous missions. ICE became the first spacecraft to directly investigate two comets. ICE data from both cometary encounters are included in the International Halley Watch archive at

Tracking and telemetry support were provided by the DSN (Deep Space Network) starting in January 1984. The ISEE-3/ICE bit rate was nominally 2048 bps during the early part of the mission, and 1024 bps during the Giacobini-Zinner comet encounter. The bit rate then successively dropped to 512 bps (on 9/12/85), 256 bps (on 5/1/87), 128 bps (on 1/24/89) and finally to 64 bps (on 12/27/91).

As of January 1990, ICE was in a 355 day heliocentric orbit with an aphelion of 1.03 AU, a perihelion of 0.93 AU and an inclination of 0.1 degree.

An update to the ICE mission was approved by NASA headquarters in 1991. It defined a Heliospheric mission for ICE consisting of investigations of coronal mass ejections in coordination with ground-based observations, continued cosmic ray studies, and special period observations such as when ICE and Ulysses were on the same solar radial line. By May 1995, ICE was being operated with only a low duty cycle, with some support being provided by the Ulysses project for data analysis. Termination of operations of ICE/ISEE3 was authorized 5 May 1997.

In 1999, NASA made brief contact with ICE to verify its carrier signal.

On 18 September 2008, NASA located ICE with the help of KinetX using the Deep Space Network after discovering it had not been powered off after the 1999 contact. A status check revealed that all but one of its 13 experiments were still functioning, and it still had enough propellant for 150 m/s (490 ft/s) of Δv (velocity change).

In early 2014, space enthusiasts started discussing reviving ICE when it approached the Earth in August. However, officials with the Goddard Space Flight Center said the Deep Space Network equipment required for transmitting signals to the spacecraft had been decommissioned in 1999, and was too expensive to replace.

On 15 May 2014, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project successfully raised $125,000 through crowdfunding to re-establish communications with the probe.

On 29 May 2014, the reboot team commanded the probe to switch into Engineering Mode to begin to broadcast telemetry. Project members, using the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex DSS-24 antenna, achieved synchronous communication on 26 June and obtained the four ranging points needed to refine the spacecraft's orbital parameters, data needed to calculate maneuvers required to bring the satellite out of heliocentric orbit. The reboot project successfully fired the thrusters on 2 July for the first time since 1987. They spun up the spacecraft to its nominal roll rate, in preparation for the upcoming trajectory correction maneuver in mid-July. However, a longer sequence of thrusters firings on 8 July failed, apparently due to a loss of the nitrogen gas used to pressurize the fuel tanks. The ISEE-3 Reboot Team announced that all attempts to change orbit using the ISEE-3 propulsion system had failed on 24 July. They began shutting down propulsion components to maximize the electrical power available for the science experiments.

In late July 2014, ISEE-3 Reboot Project announced the ISEE-3 Interplanetary Citizen Science Mission would gather data as the spacecraft flies by the Moon on August 10 and continues in heliocentric orbit. With five of the 13 instruments on the spacecraft still working, the science possibilities include listening for gamma ray bursts, where observations from additional locations in the solar system can be valuable. The team plans to acquire data from as much of ISEE-3's 300-day orbit as possible and the project is recruiting additional receiving sites around the globe to improve diurnal coverage. They may upload additional commands while the spacecraft is close to Earth, after which they will mostly be receiving data.

On 10 August 2014, ICE passed the Moon at a distance of approximately 15,600 km (9600 mi) from the surface and continued into heliocentric orbit. It will return to Earth's vicinity in about 17 years.

Artist's concept of ICE encountering a comet, NASA artwork

IBM introduced its PC (Personal Computer) and PC-DOS 1.0. While many microprocessor systems preceded it, the open architecture led to a revolution of explosive growth in computer accessibility and use, making computers ubiquitous.

Died, William Bradford Shockley, physicist, (co-inventor of the transistor, with Bardeen and Brattain, Nobel 1956 "for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect")

Died, Victor A. Ambartsumian, Russian astronomer, one of the founders of theoretical astrophysics

2001 13:42:00 CDT (GMT -5:00:00)
NASA STS 105 docked at the International Space Station during ISS Flight 7A.1.

STS 105 was launched 10 August 2001, and spent 12 days in orbit, with eight of those days docked to the International Space Station, from 12 August through 20 August. While at the orbital outpost, the STS-105 crew attached the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, transferred supplies and equipment to the station, completed two space walks and deployed a small spacecraft called Simplesat. Discovery delivered the Expedition Three crew, Commander Frank Culbertson, Pilot Vladimir Dezhurov and Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin, for their extended stay aboard the space station. It returned to Earth with Expedition Two crewmembers Commander Yury Usachev and Flight Engineers Jim Voss and Susan Helms who had spent 147 days living on the station.

Mission Specialists Daniel Barry and Patrick Forrester spent a total of 11 hours, 45 minutes outside the ISS during two space walks. The first space walk involved installing the Early Ammonia Servicer and the first external experiment, the Materials International Space Station Experiment, onto the station's hull. The servicer contains spare ammonia that can be used in the space station's cooling systems if needed. MISSE was a NASA/Langley Research Center-managed cooperative endeavor to fly materials and other types of space exposure experiments on the space station. The objective was to develop early, low-cost, non-intrusive opportunities to conduct critical space exposure tests of space materials and components planned for use on future spacecraft. Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Center, the Materials Laboratory at the Air Force Research Laboratory and Boeing Phantom Works were participants with Langley in the project. The experiments were in four Passive Experiment Containers (PECs) initially developed and used for an experiment on Mir in 1996 during the Shuttle-Mir Program. PECs are suitcase-like containers for transporting experiments via the space shuttle to and from an orbiting spacecraft. Once on orbit and clamped to the host spacecraft, the PECs are opened and serve as racks to expose experiments to the space environment.

During the second space walk, Barry and Forrester strung two 13.7 meter (45 foot) heater cables and installed handrails down both sides of the Destiny Laboratory.

The Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), one of three supplied by the Italian Space Agency, made its second trip to the International Space Station in Discovery's payload bay. Aboard Leonardo were six Resupply Stowage Racks, four Resupply Stowage Platforms, and two new scientific experiment racks for the station's US laboratory Destiny. The two new science racks (EXPRESS Racks 4 and 5) added science capability to the station. EXPRESS stands for Expedite the Processing of Experiments to the Space Station. EXPRESS Rack 4 weighed 1,175 pounds (533 kg) and EXPRESS Rack 5 weighed 1,200 pounds (544 kg). The empty weight of each EXPRESS rack is about 785 pounds (356 kg). The Resuppy Stowage Racks and Resupply Stowage Platforms were filled with Cargo Transfer Bags that contained equipment and supplies for the station. The six Resuppply Stowage Racks contained almost 3,200 pounds (1451 kg) of cargo and the four Resupply Stowage Platforms contained about 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of cargo, not including the weight of the Cargo Transfer Bags, the foam packing around the cargo or the straps and fences that hold the bags in place. The total weight of cargo, racks and packing material aboard Leonardo was just over 11,000 pounds (4990 kg), with a total cargo weight of about 6,775 pounds (3073 kg).

Mission Specialist Pat Forrester used the shuttle's robot arm to move the MPLM from the shuttle to the Earth-facing docking port on the station's Unity module. Both crews worked together to haul tons of supplies and equipment from Leonardo to storage places within the station, then filled Leonardo with unneeded station equipment and trash for return to Earth. Forrester then used the robot arm to reberth the module in Discovery's payload bay for the trip home.

Other payloads on STS 105 were part of the Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility Shuttle Small Payloads Project. The SSPP system utilizes payload carrier systems such as the Hitchhiker, Getaway Specials and Space Experiment Modules to provide a low cost scientific research environment. SSPP payloads on STS-105 include the Hitchhiker payload Simplesat, the Cell Growth in Microgravity GAS Canister (G-708), the Microgravity Smoldering Combustion experimet (MSC), and the Hitchiker Experiment Advancing Technology Space Experiment Module-10 payload.

STS 105 ended 22 August 2001 when Discovery landed on Runway 15, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, following a one-orbit wave-off due to a rain shower that popped up off the end of the landing strip. Mission duration: 11 days, 21 hours, 13 minutes, 52 seconds. Orbit altitude: 122 nautical miles. Orbit inclination: 51.6 degrees.

The flight crew for STS 105 was: Scott J. Horowitz, Commander; Frederick W. "Rick" Sturckow, Pilot; Patrick G. Forrester, Mission Specialist 1; Daniel T. Barry, Mission Specialist 2; Expedition Three crew flew to the ISS (returned on STS 108): Frank L. Culbertson, Jr., ISS Commander; Vladimir N. Dezhurov, Soyuz Commander; Mikhail Tyurin, Flight Engineer; Expedition Two crew returned from the ISS (launched on STS 102): Yury V. Usachev, ISS Commander; James S. Voss, Flight Engineer; Susan J. Helms, Flight Engineer.

2005 07:43:00 EDT (GMT -4:00:00)
NASA launched the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter (MRO) toward Mars to continue studies of the planet, to examine potential landing sites for future surface missions, and to provide a high-data-rate communications relay for those missions.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), launched 12 August 2005 on an Atlas V, was designed to orbit Mars over a full Martian year and gather data with six scientific instruments, including a high-resolution imager. The science objectives of the mission are to: characterize the present climate of Mars and its physical mechanisms of seasonal and interannual climate change; determine the nature of complex layered terrain on Mars and identify water-related landforms; search for sites showing evidence of aqueous and/or hydrothermal activity; identify and characterize sites with the highest potential for landed science and sample return by future Mars missions; and return scientific data from Mars landed craft during a relay phase. MRO was planned to return high resolution images, study surface composition, search for subsurface water, trace dust and water in the atmosphere, and monitor weather.

The launch window opened at Kennedy Space Center on 10 August 2005, with launch opportunities available until 5 September. The cruise to Mars took about seven months and included checkouts, calibrations, navigation, and three trajectory correction maneuvers (TCMs). The planned fourth TCM and possible fifth TCM were not required, saving 60 pounds (27 kg) of fuel, usable during MRO's extended mission. On 10 March 2006, MRO reached Mars and performed a Mars orbit insertion maneuver, passing under the southern hemisphere of Mars at an altitude of 370–400 km (230–250 mi) and firing its main engines for about 27 minutes. Signals that the burn had started reached Earth at 21:24 UT (4:24 PM EST) on 10 March. With 6 minutes left in the burn MRO passed behind Mars as seen from Earth. Radio communication resumed when it re-emerged about 30 minutes later.

The 1641 second orbit insertion burn slowed the spacecraft by about one km/sec, leaving it in a 400 x 35000 km polar capture orbit with a 35.5 hour period. The helium pressurization tank was colder than expected, which reduced the pressure in the fuel tank by about 21 kilopascals (3.0 psi). The reduced pressure caused the diminished engine thrust by 2%, but MRO automatically compensated by extending the burn time by 33 seconds. Shortly after insertion, the periapsis (closest approach to Mars) was 426 km (265 mi) from the surface (3,806 km (2,365 mi) from the planet's center). The apoapsis (the farthest distance from Mars) was 44,500 km (27,700 mi) from the surface (47,972 km (29,808 mi) from the planet's center).

Aerobraking was used over the next five months, from 30 March to 30 August 2006, to lower the orbit. MRO fired its thrusters twice more in September 2006 to fine-tune its final, nearly circular science orbit to approximately 250 to 316 km (155 to 196 mi) above the Martian surface (with periapsis over the south pole and apoapsis over the north pole). There are twelve sun-synchronous orbits per day so that the orbiter will always see the ground at 3:00 PM local time at the equator.

The SHARAD radar antennas were deployed on 16 September 2006. All of the scientific instruments were tested and most were turned off prior to the solar conjunction which occurred from 7 October to 6 November 2006. The "primary science phase" began after the conjunction ended.

MRO took its first high resolution image from its science orbit on 29 September 2006, resolving items as small as 90 cm (3 feet) in diameter. On 6 October, NASA released detailed pictures from the MRO of Victoria crater with the Opportunity rover on the rim above it. On 17 November 2006 NASA announced the successful test of the MRO as an orbital communications relay: Using the NASA rover Spirit as the point of origin for the transmission, the MRO acted as a relay for transmitting data back to Earth.

HiRISE continues to return images enabling discoveries regarding the geology of Mars. Among these is the banded terrain observations indicating the presence and action of liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) or water on the surface of Mars in its recent geological past. HiRISE photographed the Phoenix lander during its parachute descent to Vastitas Borealis on 25 May 2008 (sol 990). On 6 August 2012 (sol 2483) the orbiter passed over Gale crater, the landing site of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, during its EDL phase. The HiRISE camera captured an image of the Curiosity rover descending with its backshell and supersonic parachute.

On 3 March 2010, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed another significant milestone, having transmitted over 100 terabits of data back to Earth, which was more than all other interplanetary probes sent from Earth combined.

Science operations took place nominally from the end of solar conjunction in November 2006 to the start of the next solar conjunction in November 2008, roughly one Martian year. Following the nominal mission, extended science and communications relay missions have been undertaken.

In November 2006, problems began to surface with two MRO instruments: A stepping mechanism in the Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) skipped on multiple occasions, resulting in a field of view that is slightly out of position. By December normal operations of the instrument were suspended, although a mitigation strategy allows the instrument to continue making most of its intended observations. Also, an increase in noise and resulting bad pixels has been observed in several CCDs of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). Operation of the camera with a longer warm-up time has alleviated the issue, but the cause is still unknown and the problem may return. The orbiter continued to experience recurring problems in 2009, including four spontaneous resets, culminating in a four-month shut-down of the spacecraft from August to December. While engineers did not determine the cause of the recurrent resets, they have created new software to help troubleshoot the problem should it recur.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter consists of a main bus, constructed of titanium, carbon composites, and aluminum honeycomb. Extending from the bus are two solar panel wings and a 3 meter high-gain antenna dish. The bus houses the propulsion system, telecommunications, command, guidance, and science instruments. The maximum spacecraft mass was 2180 kg, including 1149 kg of propellants.

Propulsion is provided by a total of 20 thrusters. Six 170N monopropellant (hydrazine) main-engine thrusters were used for the Mars Orbit insertion burn, which used about 70% of the total fuel onboard. Six 22N thrusters are used for trajectory correction maneuvers and eight 0.9N thrusters for pointing. All thrusters are fed from a single propellant tank mounted near the center of the main bus. A pressurant tank is used to force propellant to the motors. Spacecraft control is achieved with the use of reaction wheels and reaction control system thrusters. Navigation and attitude knowledge is determined by 16 Sun sensors, two star tracker cameras, and two inertial measurement units which use accelerometers and gyroscopes.

Two way telecommunications is done via X-band at about 8000 MHz, primarily through the 3 m diameter steerable high-gain dish antenna. Two low-gain Ka-band antennas, mounted on the high-gain dish, are also available for transmission and reception. Two transponders and three TWT amplifiers allow maximum data rates of 6 megabits/sec. Power is provided by the two solar cell array wings mounted on opposite side of the bus. Each array has an area of 10 square meters and contains 3744 solar cells. The panels produce 1000 Watts at Mars which is used to run the equipment directly, and to charge two nickel-hydrogen 50 A-hr, 32-volt batteries. Thermal control is achieved by a combination of radiators, surface coatings, insulation, and heaters.

MRO's science payload includes the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a visible stereo imaging camera; the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), a visible/near-infrared spectrometer to study the surface composition; the Mars Climate Sounder (MCS), an infrared radiometer to study the atmosphere, a shallow subsurface sounding radar (SHARAD) provided by the Italian Space Agency to search for underground water; the Context Camera (CTX), to provide wide-area views; and the Mars Color Imager (MARCI), to monitor clouds and dust storms. In addition, there are three engineering instruments aboard MRO: the Electra UHF communications and navigation package, used as a relay between the Earth and other Mars missions; the optical navigation camera, tested for possible navigational use on future planetary spacecraft; and the Ka-band telecommunications experiment package, for testing high performance Ka-band communications. Engineering accelerometer data is used to study the structure of the Martian atmosphere, and tracking of the orbiter is used to study the gravity field of Mars.

Artist's concept of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit over Mars, NASA artwork

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