Spy Satellite to Head to Mars?

By James Maynard , May 16, 2013 12:31 PM EDT

A spy satellite donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office may be headed to Mars to study the red planet and its two moons. The space telescope is similar in size and appearance to the Hubble telescope, which was put into Earth orbit in 1990.

The purpose of the mission will not only be pure astronomical research, but also to scout out potential landing sites on the red planet for future probes and a possible crewed landing. The endeavor has been named MOST, for Mars-Orbiting Space Telescope. 

The telescope, as it is envisioned for the mission, has three main instruments onboard –– an imaging spectral mapper, ultraviolet spectrometer and a high-resolution imager. The spectral mapper will give NASA planners 100 times the resolution of a similar device on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently circling around the fourth planet. The telescope's main mirror measures eight feet across.

Alfred McEwan of the University of Arizona, who is due to head this mission, said that with better cameras, "you're getting mineralogic information at much higher spatial resolution, and now you're seeing things at the scale that you can investigate in the field with rovers."

The satellite that is now likely to head to the red planet is one of two such telescopes that were donated to the space agency last year. The pair were originally built as part of an NRO program called Future Imagery Architecture, which was canceled in 2005. Since NASA came into possession of the satellites, debate has raged about the best way to put them to use. Scientists pondering that question are now reaching the consensus that one of the two space telescopes should be placed in orbit around Mars.

About the capabilities of the mission, McEwan said, "When pointed at Mars, [this telescope] can significantly advance our understanding of the past and present habitability of Mars."

Having two such telescopes donated to the cash-strapped agency is a huge boon to NASA, as building and launching the Hubble telescope cost the group $2.5 billion dollars. The space agency has said that it will hold off on making a final decision on the project until more data is available about the upcoming mission of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.

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