A new lander called InSight will be on it's way to Mars in 2016, and when it lands, it will need the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (or NRO) to relay information back to mission control on Earth. But to do that, the NRO has to be in the right orbit.In preparation for this vital cooperation, today the NRO will start altering its orbit.
In case you forgot, the MRO has been orbiting Mars since 2006. Why? well its original mission was to perform high resolution mapping of the surface of Mars from 2006 to 2008, which it did brilliantly. But then NASA engineers realized that they had a satellite orbiting Mars with a powerful transmitter on it, so why not use it to assist with any other missions that were going or had already gone to Mars? So, for InSight, the MRO's been slated in as part of the mission.
Today the MRO performed a 77-second firing of six of its intermediate-sized thrusters to adjust the timing of its orbit. The goal is to get it into position to receive radio transmissions from the InSight lander, before and during its landing, and especially while InSight is on the Martian surface collecting data. MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains, "Without making this orbit change maneuver, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be unable to hear from InSight during the landing, but this will put us in the right place at the right time."
In this "right place at the right time" the MRO will be able to record InSight's transmissions before and during its landing, for later playback to Earth. The MRO performed this same service for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as it landed three years ago, and for NASA's Phoenix Mars lander as it touched down in 2008.
InSight's mission will be in the realm of what hear on Earth would be called the Earth Sciences, but it will be on Mars so ... anyway, it will, for the first time in history, drill into the surface of Mars. It will deploy a seismometer, all to examine the deep interior of Mars and to gather clues about the formation and early evolution of all of the terrestrial, rocky planets, including Earth. The MRO will continue its high resolution studies of Mars as it prepares for the InSight's arrival, collecting high-resolution imaging and spectral data, along with sub-surface and atmospheric profiles. Due to the fact that the MRO has been doing all of this since 2006, the orbiter has ended up returning several times more data about the Red Planet than all other deep-space missions combined.