"It's 2001, and a new space odyssey has begun," commented Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society, on last night's arrival of NASA's Mars Odyssey at the Red Planet.
"Not only is the successful orbit insertion a big boost to Mars exploration," said Friedman, "but it's also an inspirational boost when we need to look forward to a positive future."
Mars Odyssey will join Mars Surveyor in orbiting the distant planet, essentially "doubling" Earth's traffic at this outpost of exploration. The spacecraft's mission is to carry out experiments that will further our quest to determine whether life ever arose on Mars, to characterize the climate and geology of Mars, and to prepare for eventual human exploration of the Red Planet.
Under the leadership of retiring NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and former Associate Administrator for Space Science, Wesley T. Huntress, Jr. (now President of The Planetary Society), NASA established its Mars exploration program, which calls for a series of orbiters and landers for Mars.
Huntress said, "This success will add new capability as we continue to investigate the possibility that life may have once existed on Mars."
Odyssey's science mission will begin in January 2002. To achieve the proper orbit to carry out that mission, Odyssey's orbit will repeatedly dip the spacecraft into the planet's upper atmosphere over the coming weeks. As it does, the drag on the spacecraft will slow it down and allow controllers to change Odyssey's orbit from a highly elliptical 19-hour orbit to a nearly circular 2-hour orbit.
The spacecraft has three science instruments onboard: THEMIS (Thermal-Emission Imaging System - a camera capable of taking both visible light and thermal emission images); GRS (a gamma ray spectrometer designed to study the mineral and chemical composition of the first few centimeters of Martian crust); and MARIE (a Martian radiation environment experiment designed to study radiation levels and identify potential hazards to future human exploration.) MARIE stopped working during the journey to Mars, but it might be possible to reestablish its operations during the mission.
These instruments will acquire new information about the surface composition of Mars, perhaps including the presence or absence of near-surface ice or even liquid water.
The Mars exploration program missions, besides Odyssey, include the Pathfinder lander with its Sojourner rover; Global Surveyor, which is still working in Martian orbit; and Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander, which failed on arrival at Mars in 1999.
Odyssey's primary mission is scheduled to last one Martian year, almost two Earth years. Once its primary mission is complete, Odyssey will act as a communication relay for two Mars exploration rovers, scheduled for launch in 2003 and arrival at Mars in January and February 2004.