Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter celebrates 10 years at red planet

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) arrived at the red planet 10 years ago today and has since completed 45,000 orbits and generated a vast amount of scientific data.

Of the seven missions currently active at Mars, MRO returns more data every week than the other six combined, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Orbiter mission.

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The Orbiter “has revealed in unprecedented detail a planet that held diverse wet environments billions of years ago and remains dynamic today,” explained NASA JPL, in a statement.

NASA highlighted, in particular, MRO’s discovery of the possibility of liquid water on present-day Mars. The Orbiter has also identified underground geologic structures, scanned atmospheric layers and observed the planet's weather on a daily basis.

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"This mission has helped us appreciate how much Mars -- a planet that has changed greatly over time -- continues to change today," said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of NASA's JPL, in the statement.

NASA explained that MRO data have improved knowledge about three distinct periods on Mars. “Observations of the oldest surfaces on the planet show that diverse types of watery environments existed -- some more favorable for life than others,” it said. “More recently, water cycled as a gas between polar ice deposits and lower-latitude deposits of ice and snow, generating patterns of layering linked to cyclical changes similar to ice ages on Earth.”

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The Orbiter also helps identify landing states for Mars rover missions and stationary landers and helps rover teams choose routes and destinations. Additionally, it works with the orbiting Mars Odyssey spacecraft to relay data from rovers and landers to NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth.

Mars continues to loom large for NASA. On Wednesday the space agency announced that it is targeting a May 2018 launch for its delayed Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to study the planet.

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NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to the red planet by 2035.