NASA launches Mars Orbiter

With Monday’s launch of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars – or CRISM – joins the set of high-tech detectives seeking traces of water on the red planet.

Built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., CRISM is the first visible-infrared spectrometer to fly on a NASA Mars mission. Its primary job: look for the residue of minerals that form in the presence of water, the “fingerprints” left by evaporated hot springs, thermal vents, lakes or ponds on Mars when water could have existed on the surface.

With unprecedented clarity, CRISM will map areas on the martian surface down to house-sized scales – as small as 60 feet (about 18 meters) across – when the spacecraft is in its average orbit altitude of about 190 miles (more than 300 kilometers), Science Today says.

“CRISM plays a very important role in Mars exploration,” says APL’s Dr. Scott Murchie, the instrument’s principal investigator. “Our data will identify sites most likely to have contained water, and which would make the best potential landing sites for future missions seeking fossils or even traces of life on Mars.”

Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which launched the orbiter Friday, say its primary task is to field a series of orbital experiments that were lost when missions failed to reach the planet in the 1990s.

It will also use its high-resolution cameras and sophisticated climatic observers to gauge weather patterns and pick out potential landing sites for robotic rovers and, eventually, manned missions, Chicago Tribune reports.

The $720 million jack-of-all-trades will sound the depths of previously spotted water ice pockets, hunt for hot springs and other potential habitats for microbial life, and use its massive antenna to relay data to Earth from other Mars missions.

"There's a lot that this spacecraft has--it's tremendously capable," said Dave Senske, a scientist with the Mars program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

If the orbiter's journey goes as well as the launch, it will join a plucky fleet of robotic cousins that are beeping in high orbits and off-roading across the Red Planet's dusty mid-latitude deserts. The findings have been tantalizing. Now, the Reconnaissance Observer will try to answer scientists' excited follow-up questions: How much water? And what does that mean?

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