Somewhere deep in the cold vacuum of space last week, a small man-made object settled into a perfect orbit around our nearest celestial neighbor, the famed red planet of Mars. For the next five years it will continue on its journey in search of water and life, sending possibly ground-breaking data back to its home planet of Earth. "This will rewrite the textbooks on Mars," said Jim Graf, project manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
As always, waiting for the craft to send a transmission was a tense moment for the good folks at NASA. It is not very often that our nation’s great space program has a project go off without a hitch. "I am very relieved it was perfect", said Mr. Graf "We couldn't have planned it better."
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as it is affectionately called by the people at NASA, is the most advanced mission ever to be sent to another planet. It traveled nearly 500 million kilometers to reach its destination and will eventually orbit the planet in a loop at altitudes ranging from 320 to 255 kilometers above the planets surface. Its instruments will examine the planet for the first time from these low altitudes, mapping water related minerals, probing for underground layers of rock and water, and sending high resolution pictures of the landscape to the people back on Earth.
If the mission finds what it is looking for it will be well worth its 720 million dollar price tag. It could be argued that the images alone will justify the high cost of the project. We must also take into account the fact that this is a very important milestone on the road to extra-terrestrial exploration.
For now we can only speculate what might be found. The only thing we can be sure of is that it will be something.