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NASA’s Mars probe completes 50,000th orbit

An artist’s conception of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

An artist’s conception of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has completed its 50,000th orbit this week, continuing to compile the most sharp-eyed global coverage ever accomplished by a camera at the Red Planet.

The orbiter continues diverse science observations of Mars and communications relay service for two active Mars rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity.

MRO’s Context Camera (CTX) exploits a sweet spot in the balance between resolution and image file size.

With a resolution of about six metres per pixel in images of the Martian surface, it has provided a library of images now covering 99.1 per cent of Mars.

That is about equivalent to the land area of Earth. No other camera ever sent to Mars has photographed so much of the planet in such high resolution.

The Camera has taken about 90,000 images since the spacecraft began examining Mars from orbit in late 2006. Each one reveals shapes of features down to sizes smaller than a tennis court, in a swath of ground about 30 kilometers wide.

“Reaching 99.1% coverage has been tricky because a number of factors, including weather conditions, coordination with other instruments, downlink limitations, and orbital constraints, tend to limit where we can image and when,” said Michael Malin, Context Camera Team Leader of Malin Space Science Systems in the US.

In addition to observing nearly the entire planet at least once, the Context Camera has observed 60.4 per cent of the planet more than once. These observations aid science directly and also certify the safety of future landing sites.

“Single coverage provides a baseline we can use for comparison with future observations, as we look for changes,” Malin said.

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