April 13, 2006

Erica Hupp/Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
(202) 358-1237/1726

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
(818) 354-6278

RELEASE: 06-184


Researchers today released the first Mars images from two of the three
science cameras on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Images taken by the orbiter’s Context Camera and Mars Color Imager
during the first tests of those instruments at Mars confirm the
performance capability of the cameras even though the test images
were taken from nearly 10 times as far from the planet as the
spacecraft will be once it finishes reshaping its orbit. Test images
from the third camera of the science payload were released

“The test images show that both cameras will meet or exceed their
performance requirements once they’re in the low-altitude science
orbit. We’re looking forward to that time with great anticipation,”
said Dr. Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.
Malin is team leader for the Context Camera and principal
investigator for the Mars Color Imager.

The cameras took the test images two weeks after the orbiter’s March
10 arrival at Mars and before the start of “aerobraking,” a process
of reshaping the orbit by using controlled contact with Mars’
atmosphere. This week, the spacecraft is dipping into Mars’ upper
atmosphere as it approaches the altitude range that it will use for
shrinking its orbit gradually over the next six months.

The orbiter is currently flying in very elongated loops around Mars.
Each circuit lasts about 35 hours and takes the spacecraft about
27,000 miles (43,000 kilometers) away from the planet before swinging
back in close.

On Wednesday, a short burn of intermediate sized thrusters while the
orbiter was at the most distant point nudged the spacecraft to pass
from approximately 70 miles (112 kilometers) to within 66 miles (107
kilometers) of Mars’ surface.

“This brings us well into Mars’ upper atmosphere for the drag pass and
will enable the mission to start reducing the orbit to its final
science altitude,” said Dan Johnston of NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., deputy mission manager.

After hundreds of passes through the upper atmosphere, the drag will
gradually reduce the far point of the orbit until the spacecraft is
in a nearly circular orbit every two hours.

After the spacecraft gets into the proper orbit for its primary
science phase, the six science instruments on board will begin their
systematic examination of Mars. The Mars Color Imager will view the
planet’s entire atmosphere and surface every day to monitor changes
in clouds, wind-blown dust, polar caps and other changeable features.

Images from the Context Camera will have a resolution of 20 feet (6
meters) per pixel, allowing surface features as small as a basketball
court to be discerned. The images will cover swaths 18.6 miles (30
kilometers) wide.

The Context Camera will show how smaller areas examined by the High
Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera – which will have the
best resolution ever achieved from Mars orbit – and by the
mineral-identifying Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer fit
into the broader landscape. It will also allow scientists to watch
for small-scale changes, such as newly cut gullies, in the broader
coverage area.

The new test images and latest updates on the mission are available

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is managed by JPL, a division of
the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for the NASA
Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space
Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor.