first_imgLOS ANGELES – A NASA spacecraft is halfway toward Mars, where it is expected to collect more data on the Red Planet than all previous Martian explorations combined. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully fired its six engines for 20 seconds last week to adjust its flight path in anticipation of its March arrival. It will fine-tune its trajectory two more times before it enters into orbit around Mars, said Allen Halsell, deputy navigation chief at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Once in orbit, the two-ton spacecraft will join a trio of probes currently flying around Mars. The orbiter is loaded with some of the most sophisticated science instruments ever flown into space including a telescopic camera that can snap the sharpest pictures yet of the planet’s rust-colored surface. Previous spacecraft that have landed, circled or zipped past Mars have shot tens of thousands of images, but only about 2 percent of the planet has been seen at high resolution. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBlues bury Kings early with four first-period goals The orbiter also will continue to seek evidence of water, scan the surface for sites to land future robotic explorers and serve as a communications link to relay data to Earth. Already, the orbiter has successfully returned data at 6 megabits per second, or about the speed of filling a CD-ROM every 16 minutes. The reconnaissance orbiter flawlessly launched aboard an Atlas V rocket in August for a 310-million mile journey to the Red Planet. It will spend the next few months dipping down into the planet’s upper atmosphere, using friction to slow down and lower its altitude. The orbiter is the last of its kind that NASA will send to Mars this decade. Budget cuts forced the space agency to cancel a $500 million mission to send another orbiter in 2009. However, NASA plans two additional Martian landing missions – the Phoenix Mars Scout in 2007 and the Mars Science Laboratory two years later. The orbiter’s primary mission ends in 2010, but scientists say it has enough fuel to last until 2014. The $750 million mission is managed by JPL. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more