HiRISE on MRO, 2005

Alfred McEwen

My major project right now is called HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter [MRO]. I’m the Principal Investigator of that. LPL is a good place to be a Principal Investigator of instruments, and whole missions, in fact, these days.

I have co-investigators at a dozen different institutions—more than that, now—scattered around the country and in Switzerland, for one. There are various elements to the operation and the software development, some of which is being done at other institutions. I have to coordinate all that, although my formula for being a successful PI is to hire good people and make yourself completely dispensable in all areas, if possible.

I had a lot of experience with the active parts of missions, but none at all with the part of building instruments. There was a fellow at Ball Aerospace named Alan Delamere, who I got to know on a proposal for a global orbiter. He builds instruments and particularly comes up with concepts for instruments.

He needed a PI, and he called me up and asked me if I wanted to do it. It was a surprise to me. I went away and thought about it for a while, but I finally decided if I didn’t do it I’d be kicking myself forever, so I had to do it.

MRO is an orbiter, in a polar orbit. It goes around Mars about thirteen times a day. This is a big spacecraft. The two previous—three previous, including the Europeans’—successful Mars orbiters have been much smaller spacecraft. This one is quite a bit bigger and more capable, in order to carry big instruments like HiRISE, which is 65 kilograms.

It also has a very large high-gain antennae, three meters in diameter, which means we can send back lots of data, which is essential for missions like HiRISE. It’s got a big solar array, so there’s lots of power. There are other instruments, there’s lots of data rate, so it’s a very capable instrument. Months ago, MRO had already returned more Mars data than all the previous Mars missions combined.

It’s a huge amount of data, and it’s very high-quality data for science. It doesn’t get the attention from the news people as the landers and rovers, because people relate to those. But for the science community, this is really the scientist’s mission.

To me, that most exciting moment was getting our very first images in-flight—pictures of the Moon and of some stars. They’re not that exciting images—we were a long ways away from the Moon—but I knew what it meant. I knew that it meant our camera was working.