After a journey of 10 months and about 700 million km, the US spacecraft Mars Global Surveyor successfully eased into a wide orbit of Mars about 300 km over the north pole of the planet in the early hours of September 12. The craft will map the planet's surface for a Martian year that is equivalent to two Earth years. The last attempt to map the planet by the Mars Observer in 1993 failed three days before it could reach orbit.
Flight controllers of the operation described the precision of the craft's journey as throwing a baseball from Los Angeles to New York and hitting a specific window on the Empire State Building. "We could not be more pleased," said Glenn Cunningham, the project manager. "We are here to stay on Mars and are here to stay a long, long time."
Over the next four months, the Surveyor's orbit would be lowered and circularised in order to photograph the planet over the next two years. The results of this mission would be very important to the comprehensive exploration of Mars by successive aircraft over the next decade. The Surveyor's camera would be mapping flood plains, dry lake beds, and other areas where water once flowed -- or still might exist beneath the surface -- according to estimates. Future operations and landings would be directed to water-related areas.
However, the Surveyor's output of pictures would not be anything comparable to those sent by the Pathfinder and the Sojourner, its little robotic rover, that landed on Mars on July 4 and are still scanning the planet. The craft also has equipment to measure the heights of mountains and depth of canyons and dry river channels. The equipment can detect radiations from the planet surface in order to figure out the presence of minerals and to assess the pressure, composition and water vapour of the atmosphere and to search for traces of a magnetic field.
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