WASHINGTON Ė NASA selected today the builder of a Mars orbiter equipped to snap super-close-up pictures of the red planetís enigmatic surface.
Lockheed Martin has been green-lighted to construct the spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), to be launched in August 2005. The craft is to return the highest resolution images of the Martian surface ever taken by Mars-circling orbiter.
Objects as small as the size of beach balls will be resolved through the lens of the orbiterís camera system, said Jim Graf, the MRO project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. JPL will manage the mission that will operate for five-and-a-half years.
The MRO is part of a sequence of NASA Mars missions built to unravel multiple mysteries about the planet, such as understanding the history of water on the far away world. Finding local evidence of water may also unveil the prospects for past, or possibly present life on Mars.
Quick and dirty landings
Also on the MRO agenda is identifying the best, hazard-free locations for future landers to set down on Mars.
So powerful is the zoom-lens ability of MRO, picture-taking from orbit can mimic, in a sense, "quick and dirty" landings over and over, said Jim Garvin NASA Mars Exploration Program scientist at NASA Headquarters in an earlier interview with SPACE.com.
The contract awarded to Lockheed Martin for the MRO is $145 million.
MROís science payload includes an atmospheric sounder, as well as a sub-surface sounding radar. By sweeping the radar across Marsí terrain, underground reservoirs of ice and water should be detectable at certain depths.
Particularly happy to learn of the NASA announcement today are Lockheed Martin space engineers at the firmís Denver, Colorado facilities. The company suffered back to back failures in 1999 of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. A major shakeout of the engineering and management practices of the aerospace company followed an intensive investigation of the two failed missions.
Now en route to the red planet is the heavily scrutinized and checked-out Mars Odyssey, also built by Lockheed Martin. That probe is nearing Mars and begins orbiting the planet in just a few weeks.
"We understand what things went wrong on other programs. In looking forward to MRO, we tried to infuse into that program the lessons learned from those failures," said Bob Berry, 2001 Mars Odyssey Program Manager.
"We have an extremely experienced team. Itís a great advantage to have a continuing team that not only designs, develops the spacecraft, but knows how to fly the spacecraft," Berry told SPACE.com.