NASA spaceship scouts out prime Mars landing options

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter this week sent back high-resolution images of about 30 proposed landing sites for the Mars Science Laboratory, a mission launching in 2009 to deploy a long-distance rover carrying sophisticated science instruments on Mars.

landing sites?

The orbiter's high-resolution camera has taken more than 3,500 huge, sharp images released in black-and-white since it began science operations in November 2006. The images reveal features as small as a desk. The orbiter has sent back some 26 terabytes of data, equivalent to about 5,000 CD-ROMs. The camera carries 10 red filter detectors, two blue-green filter detectors and 10 infrared detectors.

"Scientists planning the Mars Science Laboratory must soon choose the one site on Mars where we can best investigate the extent to which Mars' environment is or was capable of supporting life - no easy task. We've intentionally waited for the reconnaissance from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to help us zero in on those places," said deputy project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. in a statement.

One of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's cameras is the largest ever flown on a planetary mission NASA said. While previous cameras on other Mars orbiters could identify objects no smaller than a school bus, this camera will be able to spot something as small as a dinner table. That capability will also allow the orbiter to identify obstacles like large rocks that could jeopardize the safety of future landers and rovers.

NASA said that ultimately the orbiter's telecommunications systems will also establish a crucial service for future spacecraft, becoming the first link in a communications bridge back to Earth, an "interplanetary Internet" that can be used by numerous international spacecraft in coming years. Testing the use of a radio frequency called Ka-band, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter may demonstrate the potential for greater performance in communications using significantly less power.

The orbiter also carries an experimental navigation camera. If it performs well, similar cameras placed on orbiters of the future would be able to serve as high-precision interplanetary "eyes" to guide incoming landers to precise landings on Mars, opening up exciting - but otherwise dangerous - areas of the planet to exploration, NASA said.In September NASA scientists used the orbiter's ground-penetrating Shallow Subsurface Radar instrument, and other experiments to detect evidence that Mars once supported water.

Meanwhile NASA has been busy on the ground here on earth too. The agency this week said they are committed to bringing ubiquitous wireless broadband to the sprawling Johnson Space Center in Houston. Moreover, they pledge to have the projected completed by the year 2017 and bring it in at the bargain-basement price (by government standards) of only $655 million.

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