2005 - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Launch: August 2005
Arrival: March 2006
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in August, 2005, carries the most powerful camera ever flown on a planetary exploration mission for homing in on details of Martian terrain with extraordinary clarity. While previous cameras on other Mars orbiters were able to identify objects no smaller than a dinner table, this camera is able to spot something as small as a dinner plate. This capability provides not only an astoundingly detailed view of the geology and structure of Mars, but helps identify obstacles that could jeopardize the safety of future landers and rovers.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also carries a sounder to find subsurface water, an important consideration in selecting scientifically worthy landing sites for future exploration.
Other science instruments on this multitasking, multipurpose spacecraft identify surface minerals and study how dust and water are transported in the Martian atmosphere. A second camera acquires medium-resolution images that provide a broader geological and meteorological context for more detailed observations from higher-resolution instruments.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also serves as the first installment of an "interplanetary Internet," a crucial service for future spacecraft. As the first link in a communications bridge back to Earth, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be used by several international spacecraft in coming years.