A pair of glowing orange “eyes” stares down from the western sky this evening: the planet Mars and the star Aldebaran — the eye of Taurus, the bull. They’re high in the sky at nightfall, with Mars to the right of Aldebaran, which is the brighter of the two.
Like all stars, Aldebaran is so far away that no human emissary is likely to visit for a long time — if ever. Mars, on the other hand, has been receiving Earthly visitors for more than half a century. And one of the most successful arrived at Mars 15 years ago today.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — MRO — has mapped the mineral content of the Martian surface, found ice below the surface, and provided daily weather reports.
It carries the most powerful camera ever sent to the Red Planet. It can see details on the surface as small as a dinner table. It’s photographed avalanches, fresh impact craters, dust devils, and outbursts from the polar ice caps.
MRO has also supported other missions. It’s relayed signals between Earth and landers and rovers on the surface. Mission planners have used its pictures to help select landing sites, and to plan the routes for the rovers.
MRO completed its main mission in 2010. But it’s been given several extensions since then — allowing it to keep its powerful eyes focused on the Red Planet.
And you can keep an eye on Mars as it moves away from Aldebaran over the coming days — two bright orange lights in the evening sky.
Script by Damond Benningfield