NASA is Teaching Their 'Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter' to Use Star Charts

Friday, 09 February 2018 - 6:27PM
Space
Mars
NASA
Friday, 09 February 2018 - 6:27PM
NASA is Teaching Their 'Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter' to Use Star Charts
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NASA/JPL
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is no spring chicken - the space probe first launched all the way back in 2005.

And after over twelve years of touring around Mars, dutifully analyzing the Martian surfaces, NASA is strongly considering a career change for the hardworking satellite. The MRO's initial mission was intended to only last until 2008, but as is the case with many of NASA's creations (such as the late, great Cassini space probe), it turns out you can wring a lot of life out of a piece of electronics when they're not built with planned obsolescence in mind.

Getting probes to Mars is an expensive and risky prospect, so as long as the MRO is still functioning, NASA is going to find a use for it.



The problem is that, having outlived its initial mission parameters by almost ten years, the MRO is beginning to show its age. Wear and tear has degraded the probe's gyroscopes, which are its primary method of navigating the void of space - without a clear idea of what direction it's pointed in, the MRO is essentially blind, and could very well fly off in the wrong direction, only to get caught in Mars' gravitational pull. The results would not be pretty.

As NASA considers what to do next with this hardworking robotic explorer, efforts are being made to teach an old probe new tricks. In the absence of a working gyroscope system, the MRO is going old school: from now on, it'll navigate by the stars, like an interplanetary pirate.

Currently, the MRO is being taught star patterns and charts, so that as long as it can get a good view of the wider galaxy around it, it'll be able to figure out where it is in relation to potential hazards (such as the Red Planet itself).



According to MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston, so far, this new learning process is going well. He said the following in a press statement:

Opening quote
"In all-stellar mode, we can do normal science and normal relay. The inertial measurement unit powers back on only when it's needed, such as during safe mode, orbital trim maneuvers, or communications coverage during critical events around a Mars landing.
Closing quote


The MRO is currently in an orbit around the sun that is parallel with Mars, meaning that it's always directly above the Martian surface. As long as the MRO can keep track of where the stars should be at any given time, it'll be able to continue missions from NASA.

That said, because of the age of the probe, NASA is reducing its workload substantially. From this point on, the MRO will be operating in "low power mode", saving its strength for important maneuvers as it continues to relay information about the Martian atmosphere and planet.

All going well, NASA should be able to get a lot more use out of this probe before it inevitably runs out of steam. It just goes to show what can be achieved when a team of scientists really don't want to have to let a beloved drone die.
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