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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

Project managers had been nervous about the orbiter's insertion maneuver because of Mars' reputation of producing missing-in-action space probes. In the past 15 years, two of the four orbiters that NASA flew to Mars failed before or during orbit insertion.

But the Reconnaissance Orbiter did not suffer the same fate.

"It happened right on the money," said Dan McCleese, chief scientist for the Mars program at JPL.

Later this month, engineers will send commands to the orbiter to begin the aerobraking process, in which the spacecraft will perform a series of dips into the upper atmosphere, using friction to brake and lower its altitude. Engineers estimate it will take more than 500 maneuvers to slip into a favorable orbit to collect data.

The newest orbiter is equipped with the most high-tech science instruments ever flown to another planet including a telescopic camera to photograph the surface in unprecedented detail and radar to probe underground for ice and possible evidence of liquid water.


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