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On Cue, Spacecraft Glides into Orbit Around Mars

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Mars has a new satellite as of today. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived there this afternoon and fired its rockets right on schedule. That maneuver was designed to put the spacecraft into orbit around Mars. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are now breathing easier. Many previous missions to Mars have ended in failure. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS, reporting:

Like whistling past the graveyard, this week NASA engineers have been talking up the history of mission failures at Mars. The Mars Climate Orbiter that failed because one set of engineers was using feet and inches, the other was using meters. The Mars Polar Lander, which should probably be renamed the Mars Polar Crasher, and the European Space Agency's Beagle Two, which also bit the Martian dust. So today, as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter made its final approach, each technical milestone was worth celebrating. For example, when the fuel tanks charged up their pressure on command from the craft's onboard computer.

Unidentified Man #1: I can confirm that pressurization has started.

Unidentified Man #2: Copy that, pressurization has started.

Unidentified Man #3: That was easy.

HARRIS: The spacecraft gradually turned itself around, that way its 12 braking rockets would be pointing forward to slow the spacecraft down as it started to get whipsawed by the tug of Martian gravity. And at 1:24 PM Pacific time, the rockets started to fire right on cue.

Unidentified Woman #1: All stations [unintelligible]; at this time 17-4041 is complete; the transmitter is off.

HARRIS: And the cheerful status reports kept flowing in.

Unidentified Woman #2: This point the spacecraft is traveling over 10,000 miles per hour. It is still 1,300 miles above the surface of Mars. At its closest approach it will going about 11,000 miles per hour and be about 260 miles above the surface.

HARRIS: Then about 21 minutes into the rocket firing, the communications link to Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter went dead.

Unidentified Man #4: All stations at this time, spacecraft is entering eclipse.

HARRIS: As expected, the spacecraft disappeared behind the planet. At that point, engineers could just sit and wait and wonder whether the rockets would continue to their job. Instead of just sitting around and wringing his hands, mission scientist Rich Zurek passed some of the time by talking up the excitement he hoped would come from the mission.

Mr. RICH ZUREK, (Scientist, NASA): Well, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, we hope, will be the next step in the Mars exploration program in the sense of giving us a much better view of Mars than we've had before. We're going to try some new things. We're going to probe beneath the surface with better resolution than we've been able to do. We're going to look at the surface in terms of it's composition and just what it look likes, and try to understand where water was on this planet for what periods of times, for how long.

HARRIS: The Orbiter is designed to send back an avalanche of data, incredible detailed photos taken from 200 miles above the surface, as well as details about material just beneath the surface using ground-penetrating radar. It will also scout future landing sites and is supposed to serve as a relay station for robots on the surface of Mars, assuming it gets into a useful orbit. At 2:16 PM Pacific time, people in the control room pricked up their ears waiting to hear back from the spacecraft as it reappeared from behind Mars.

Unidentified Man #5: All stations this [unintelligible]. We have one way.

(Soundbite of applause)

HARRIS: With that it appeared that the mission was well on its way to beating the odds at Mars and becoming another tick mark in NASA's success column.

Richard Harris. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.