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Mars Odyssey marks 15 years since launch

On April 7, 2001, NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft launches into space on its seven-month journey to Mars.

On April 7, 2001, NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft launches into space on its seven-month journey to Mars. (Click for full view.) Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, which has relayed data from the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers on the Red Planet’s surface, and also found evidence for the presence of water ice close to Mars’ surface in various locations, is marking the 15th anniversary of its launch on April 7, 2001.

Launched on a Boeing Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the orbiter was named in honor of Arthur C. Clarke’s popular science fiction novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, a choice supported by Clarke (1917-2008).

Artist's concept of 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft over Syrtis Major Planum.

Artist’s concept of 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft over Syrtis Major Planum. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Less than seven months after launch, on October 24, 2001, Mars Odyssey arrived at its destination, firing its main engine to enter Martian orbit.

Over the next three months, the orbiter embarked on what mission team members describe as an “aerobraking phase”, in which various controlled maneuvers were conducted within Mars’ upper atmosphere to attain the ideal orbit for mapping the planet.

While Odyssey’s primary mission was completed in 2004, multiple mission extensions have kept it active for a decade and a half. It became the longest active Mars spacecraft in December 2010.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, both of which arrived on the Red Planet in 2004, relied on Odyssey to transmit more than 90 percent of the data they collected back to Earth.

The Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012, relays its data through both Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Every day for more than five years, Odyssey has been extending its record for how long a spacecraft can keep working on Mars,” Odyssey Project Manager David Lehman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said upon its reaching the December 2010 milestone.

“The spacecraft is remarkably healthy, and we have enough fuel to last for several more years.”

More than five years later, Odyssey is still going strong, having now observed the Red Planet for more than six Martian years. One Martian year equals nearly two Earth years.

The orbiter has observed more than six full changes of Martian seasons, enabling it to discern cyclical weather patterns that repeat seasonally though may be somewhat different each year.

Large dust storms, for example, occur seasonally but can vary widely from one year to the next.

Odyssey has now fully mapped the Red Planet, both during daytime sunlight and via infrared emissions at night.

The orbiter has played a major role in the quest for evidence that water once flowed on Mars’ surface. Evidence of water ice near the planet’s surface was found by its instruments in numerous locations.

Even before reaching Mars, Odyssey measured radiation levels during its journey from Earth to the Red Planet, providing crucial data for eventual crewed missions.

Morning Clouds Atop Martian Mountain

Seen shortly after local Martian sunrise, clouds gather in the summit pit, or caldera, of Pavonis Mons, a giant volcano on Mars, in this image from the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. (Click for full view.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

For most of its time in orbit, Odyssey observed Mars’ surface either in the early afternoon or in the darkness of predawn hours. That changed during the last two years, when mission controllers re-configured its orbit in relation to the Sun, enabling the orbiter to fly over the planet in the light of early mornings.

This orbital change allows Odyssey to compare ground temperatures in the morning, afternoon, and predawn hours at the same locations. It also enables the orbiter to study morning clouds and fogs.

When launched in 2001, Odyssey followed two Mars missions that had failed in late 1999 and resulted in NASA overhauling its plans to explore the Red Planet. All six NASA Mars missions launched after Odyssey have been successful.

“In addition to the quality of this spacecraft, the careful way it is operated has been crucial to how it has stayed so productive so long,” said Jeffrey Plaut of JPL, Odyssey Project Scientist.

Odyssey was designed for a four-year mission. We’re in the 15th year, and it keeps doing everything we ask it to do.”

The orbiter was constructed by Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems in conjunction with JPL.

Video Courtesy of Universe Odyssey


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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