The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifted off on an Atlas V rocket on a seven-month journey to Mars. Circling the planet for at least four years, the orbiter is to provide unparalleled information on Mars' weather, climate and geology, which could aid possible future human exploration of the Red Planet.
The $720 million mission is divided into two parts. During its first two years, the orbiter will help build on NASA's knowledge of the history of ice on the planet. The planet is cold and dry with large caps of frozen water at its poles. Scientists are also trying to determine if it could support future human outposts.
The orbiter is loaded with two cameras that will provide high-resolution images and global maps of Martian weather, a spectrometer that will identify water-related minerals and a radiometer to measure atmospheric dust.
During the second phase of its mission, the orbiter will serve as a communications messenger between the robotic explorers on Mars and Earth. The reconnaissance orbiter has a powerful antenna that can transmit 10 times more data per minute than the current trio of satellites positioned around the planet -- NASA's Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency's Mars Express.