Although NASA’s 14-year old Opportunity rover is currently trapped in a state of low-power hibernation in an effort to weather a record-breaking global dust storm encompassing Mars, the agency’s equally venerable Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – now in its 12th year of operations – remains a stoic overwatch and witness to the struggles of its land-locked companions.
Although MRO may be nearing its teenage years in orbit around the Red Planet, the Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft is currently the backbone of Mars-Earth communications, acting as a critical relay between the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the planet’s surface and its Earthly operators that are several tens of millions of miles distant. Thankfully, the European ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and NASA’s new MAVEN orbiter are able to augment MRO’s communications capabilities in the event that problems arise with the old spacecraft, as well as the even older 2001 Mars Odyssey, an orbiter launched in 2001, a name inspired by fantasy/science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Aside from its currently unmatched communications relay capabilities, MRO’s second science mission is mentioned in its name – reconnaissance. Enter HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), by far the most capable imaging system to ever orbit another planet, and funnily enough even more capable than Earth-bound imaging satellites as a result of its ability to stably remain in extremely low Martian orbits, thanks to the planet’s low gravity and minimal atmosphere. MRO and its HiRISE imaging hardware currently orbit Mars at an average altitude of roughly 175 miles (280 km) and are able to take photos with a resolving power upwards of 30 centimeters per pixel (0.3m/px), whereas the absolutely best and fully-dedicated Earth imaging satellites are currently limited by a combination of physics and technological complexity to roughly 50 centimeters per pixel (0.5m/px).
As a result, HiRISE has produced some of the highest-resolution (if not the outright best) photos of an extraterrestrial body of any spacecraft to leave Earth orbit. Although an inherent delay in data collection and image processing means that no images have been published by HiRISE since Mars was enveloped in a global dust storm in June 2018, images from late 2017 and early 2018 serve to emphasize the staggering beauty and variety of the many landscapes Mars has to offer. Perched miles above, MRO may once again hear from the beleaguered rover Opportunity (as the dust storm subsides over the coming weeks and months, allowing appreciable quantities of sunlight to grace the rover’s solar panels and bring it back to life from its state of indefinite slumber.
In the meantime, we can try to appreciate the awe-inspiring, austere beauty of Mars, from its vast poles of water and carbon dioxide ice and bright blue sand dunes to its sprawling mazes of chaos terrain.