NASA’s Mars Odyssey Launched Fifteen Years Ago

At 11:02 a.m. EDT on April 7, 2001, crowds watch a Boeing Delta II rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft into space on its seven-month journey to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

At 11:02 a.m. EDT on April 7, 2001, crowds watch a Boeing Delta II rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft into space on its seven-month journey to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

April 7, 2016 – The 2001 Mars Odyssey designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was launched on this date fifteen years ago. While in orbit, the spacecraft has collected data that has been used to analyze the global elemental composition of the planet, searched for evidence of ancient hot springs and mineral deposits, surveyed the radiation environment and provided a communications link with Mars landers.

Back-to-back failures of two Mars missions launched in 1999 had prompted an overhaul of NASA’s Mars plans, but fittingly, a new era in Mars exploration came at the dawn of a new century when the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission discovered huge deposits of hydrogen near the northern polar region of Mars. And not only has Odyssey itself operated successfully longer than any other spacecraft ever sent to Mars, but during Odyssey’s lifespan so far, all six subsequent NASA missions sent to Mars have also succeeded.

A Delta II launch vehicle lifted Odyssey from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on April 7, 2001. When the spacecraft reached Mars on October 24, 2001, it fired its main engine to enter orbit. After an initial elliptical orbit, the flight team performed aerobraking maneuvers for several weeks to place the spacecraft in a lower, nearly circular orbit around the planet’s poles, averaging 250 miles above the surface.

The year of the launch and arrival played into NASA naming the mission 2001 Mars Odyssey as a tribute to the vision and spirit of space exploration portrayed in the works of science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, including the best-seller “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Clarke (1917-2008) endorsed the mission’s naming before the launch.

Odyssey’s primary mission was two Martian years (46 Earth months) and concluded August 2004. Since then the bonus years of extended missions have enabled many accomplishment that would not have been possible otherwise.

On December 15, 2010, Odyssey became the longest working Mars spacecraft in history when it passed the record of 3,340 days set by the Mars Global Surveyor.

“Every day for more than five years, Odyssey has been extending its record for how long a spacecraft can keep working at Mars,” said Odyssey Project Manager David Lehman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “The spacecraft is remarkably healthy, and we have enough fuel to last for several more years.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, built the Odyssey spacecraft and collaborates with JPL in mission operations.

“In addition to the quality of the spacecraft, the careful way it is operated has been crucial to how it has stayed so productive so long,” said Odyssey Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of JPL. “Odyssey was designed for a four-year mission. We’re in the 15th year, and it keeps doing everything we ask it to do.”

Some of Odyssey’s important findings were accomplished within the first year after launch. One suite of instruments found evidence of water ice close to the surface in large areas of Mars. Another investigation measured the natural radiation environment on the way from Earth to Mars and in orbit around Mars, gaining information vital for design of human missions in what has become NASA’s journey to Mars.

Odyssey’s longevity has enabled other feats, such as complete global mapping of Mars both in daytime light and in nighttime infrared emissions.

Each full year of changing seasons on Mars lasts about 26 months, so Odyssey has observed the planet through more than six Martian years. These observations have revealed some seasonal patterns that repeat each year and other seasonal events, such as large dust storms, which differ significantly from year to year.

In the past year, Odyssey’s orbit has put the spacecraft in position to observe Mars in early-morning light. Previously, the spacecraft flew over ground that was either in afternoon-lighting or pre-dawn darkness. Maneuvers in 2014 and 2015 were designed to alter the geometry of the orbit with respect to the sun. The new geometry enables studies of morning clouds and fogs and comparison of ground temperatures in the morning to temperatures of the same sites in the afternoon and pre-dawn.

In addition to its direct contributions to planetary science, Odyssey provides important support for other missions in NASA’s Journey to Mars through communication relay service and observations of candidate landing sites. More than 90 percent of the data received from NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers has been relayed via Odyssey. Relay support for NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is shared between the Mars Reconnaissance Orbit (MRO) and Odyssey.

Odyssey was the second Mars orbiter designed, built and flown by Lockheed Martin for NASA and JPL. The first was Mars Global Surveyor which operated in orbit from September 11, 1997 to November 2, 2006. Following Odyssey was the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which entered orbit on March 10, 2006 and is still in operations, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission which entered orbit on September 21, 2014 and is also still operating.

A fleet of robotic spacecraft is exploring the Red Planet, sending back an ever-growing flood of data. While rovers like Curiosity blaze tracks through the fine Martian soil, orbiters like MAVEN and MRO circle high overhead, gazing down at the planet’s atmosphere and surface and relaying ground-based data back to Earth. The Mars fleet is providing mission controllers at NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Indian Space Research Organisation with a remote presence on Mars. Image Credit; NASA

A fleet of robotic spacecraft is exploring the Red Planet, sending back an ever-growing flood of data. While rovers like Curiosity blaze tracks through the fine Martian soil, orbiters like MAVEN and MRO circle high overhead, gazing down at the planet’s atmosphere and surface and relaying ground-based data back to Earth. The Mars fleet is providing mission controllers at NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Indian Space Research Organisation with a remote presence on Mars. Image Credit; NASA

Major achievements of the Odyssey mission include:

  • Detection of copious hydrogen just below the surface throughout the planet’s high-latitude regions. Deduction that the hydrogen was frozen water prompted NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which confirmed the frozen water in 2008.

  • Highest-resolution map covering virtually the entire planet’s

  • Conveyance of nearly all science data from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers

  • Middle link for continuous observation of Martian weather by Mars Global Surveyor, Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiters

  • Monitoring of seasonal changes on Mars year-to-year, such as the cycle of carbon-dioxide freezing out of the atmosphere in polar regions during each hemisphere’s winter

  • Completed a radiation levels safety check to aid planning of future human missions

  • Observations contributed to selection and analysis of landing sites for Mars surface missions