NASA’s Odyssey orbiter marks 20 historic years of mapping Mars

A sea of ​​dark dunes, carved by the wind in long rows, surrounds the North Polar Cap, which covers an area as large as Texas in this falsely colored image from NASA’s Mars Odyssey, the longest-running Mars spacecraft in history. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft was launched 20 years ago on April 7, 2001, making it the oldest spacecraft still operating on the Red Planet. Orbiter, named after Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Clarke blessed its use before launch), was sent to map the composition of the Martian surface by providing a window into the past so scientists could compose how the planet has evolved.

But much more has been done, uncovering the remnants of water ice, serving as a crucial communication link for other spacecraft and helping to pave the way not only for safer landings but also for future astronauts.

Here is a partial list of many of Odysseus’ achievements.

Martian ice mapping

Odysseus’ data from two decades is a boon for researchers working to determine the location of water ice on the planet. Understanding the water cycle on Mars – a planet that used to be much wetter, like Earth – offers insight into the way it has changed over time: How does water move around the planet today? Does the tilt of the planet affect where the ice is stable? Odysseus’ discoveries helped to remove these questions.

“Before the Odyssey, we didn’t know where that water was stored on the planet,” said project scientist Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which runs the Odyssey mission. “We first discovered it from orbit, and later confirmed that it was there using the Phoenix lander.”

Water ice shops are also needed to help astronauts survive on Mars and provide fuel for spaceships. (In fact, the astronauts were in the focus of an instrument on the Odyssey that measured how much space radiation they would have to fight before it stopped working in 2003.) The orbiter finds water ice using its gamma-ray spectrometer (GRS) detector, which has proven capable of fighter hydrogen on the surface – a proxy for water ice. GRS measures the amount of different elements on the surface of Mars and also serves as a node in NASA’s Interplanetary Gamma Ray (GRB) network, which identifies the original locations of GRBs for further astronomical observations.

What Mars is made of

Take a look at almost any Martian surface mapping study and it probably includes Odysseus data. For many years, the most complete global maps of Mars were created using Odysseus’ infrared camera, called the Thermal Emission Imaging System or THEMIS. The camera measures surface temperature day and night, allowing scientists to determine which physical materials, such as stone, sand or dust, exist. His data reveal the presence of these materials based on how they heat up or cool down during a Martian day.

The net effect of all that mapping worth two decades? Scientists not only used the data to map valley networks and craters, but also managed to spot sandstone, iron-rich rocks, salt and more – findings that help gain a deeper insight into the story of Mars. “It’s hard to overestimate how the THEMIS global map has filled the gaps in our knowledge,” said Laura Kerber of JPL, Deputy Scientist for Odyssey.

NASA's Odyssey orbiter marks 20 historic years of mapping Mars

If a meteorite breaks into two parts just before hitting the ground, the typical bowl shape of a single impact crater becomes doubled. This image is from NASA’s Mars Odyssey, one of the ‘All Star’ set. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

Safer landing

THEMIS has sent more than a million images since it began orbiting Mars. Images and maps taken highlight the presence of hazards, such as topographic features and boulders, but also help ensure the safety of future astronauts by showing the location of resources such as water ice. This helps the scientific community of Mars and NASA in deciding where to send paratroopers and rovers – including the Perseverance rover, which landed on February 18, 2021.

Routine calls home

From its early beginnings, the Odyssey has served as a long-distance call center for NASA rovers and landing craft, sending its data back to Earth as part of the Mars relay network. The idea of ​​a Mars relay dates back to the 1970s, when two Viking docks sent scientific data and images through an orbiter back to Earth. An orbiter can carry a radio or antenna capable of sending more data than a surface spacecraft. But the Odyssey made the process routine when it began transferring data to and from NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

“When the twin rovers landed, the success of transmitting data using the UHF frequency was a game changer,” said Chris Potts of JPL, Odyssey’s mission manager.

Every day the rovers could go somewhere new and send fresh pictures back to Earth. Through a relay like the Odyssey, scientists used to get more data, while the public got more images of Mars that could get them excited. The Odyssey supported over 18,000 relays. These days, he shares the task of communicating with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN, along with ESA (European Space Agency) Trace Gas Orbiter.

Months in candy color

The odyssey did such a thorough job of studying the surface of Mars that scientists began turning the THEMIS camera to capture unique views of the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. As on the surface of Mars, the study of thermophysics each month helps scientists determine the properties of materials on their surfaces. Such information can provide insight into their past: It is unclear whether the moons captured asteroids or pieces of Mars, which were ejected from the surface by an ancient blow.

Future missions, such as the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) spacecraft of the Japan Space Agency, will seek to land in these months. In the distant future, missions could even create bases for astronauts on them. And if they do, they will rely on data from an orbiter who began his odyssey at the beginning of the millennium.

THEMIS was built and operated by the Arizona State University of Tempe. The Odyssey gamma ray spectrometer was provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Russian Space Research Institute. The main contractor for the Odyssey project, Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, developed and built the orbiter. The mission operations are conducted jointly by Lockheed Martin and JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena.


Odysseus’ three views of the Martian moon Phobos


Provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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