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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

Challenges Ahead for NASA's Mars Orbiter

By Alicia Chang
AP Science Writer

After adjusting its orbit, the spacecraft will begin its two-year examination of the planet in low orbit in the fall. It is expected to monitor the Martian climate and atmosphere, search for signs of ancient water on the surface and locate possible future landing sites to send the next generation of robotic rovers and possibly human explorers.

After that, it should serve as a communication relay between Earth and Mars until its primary mission ends in 2010.

Project manager Jim Graf predicted that the scientific results of the mission will be extensive.

"It will rewrite the science textbooks on Mars," Graf said.

Launched from Florida last August, the Reconnaissance Orbiter traveled 310 million miles over seven months for the risky orbit rendezvous.

It successfully circled Mars on Friday after a white-knuckle encounter in which it fired its main engines and briefly lost contact with mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena after flying behind the planet. Engineers applauded when the orbiter came back into view and signaled that it was in position.

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