Marsnow. info
NASA JPL latest news release
Mars Longevity Champion Launched 15 Years Ago

The NASA spacecraft that was launched 15 years ago this week carried the name 2001 Mars Odyssey and the hopes for reviving a stymied program of exploring the Red Planet.

Back-to-back failures of two Mars missions launched in 1999 had prompted an overhaul of NASA's Mars plans. It worked: 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 Oct. 24, 2001, it fired its main engine to enter orbit. A three-month "aerobraking" phase followed, using carefully controlled dips into the upper atmosphere of Mars to adjust the size and shape of the orbit in preparation for systematic mapping of the Red Planet.

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 completed its prime mission in 2004. With repeated mission extensions, it became the longevity champion of Mars spacecraft in December 2010.

"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, Denver, built the Odyssey spacecraft and collaborates with JPL in mission operations.

"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 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 for 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.

Just 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 Orbiter and Odyssey.

For more information about Odyssey, visit:

For a Decade Orbiting Mars: One Recent View

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter By the Numbers

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, nearing the 10th anniversary of its arrival at Mars, used its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera to obtain this view of an area with unusual texture on the southern floor of Gale Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
› Full image and caption

Fast Facts:

› NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at Mars on March 10, 2006.

› Of the seven missions currently active at Mars, MRO returns more data every week than the other six combined.

› The mission has shown how dynamic Mars remains today and how diverse its past environmental conditions were.

True to its purpose, the big NASA spacecraft that began orbiting Mars a decade ago this week has delivered huge advances in knowledge about the Red Planet.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has revealed in unprecedented detail a planet that held diverse wet environments billions of years ago and remains dynamic today.

One example of MRO's major discoveries was published last year, about the possibility of liquid water being present seasonally on present-day Mars. It drew on three key capabilities researchers gained from this mission: telescopic camera resolution to find features narrower than a driveway; spacecraft longevity to track seasonal changes over several Martian years; and imaging spectroscopy to map surface composition.

Other discoveries have resulted from additional capabilities of the orbiter. These include identifying underground geologic structures, scanning atmospheric layers and observing the entire planet's weather daily. All six of the orbiter's science instruments remain productive in an extended mission more than seven years after completion of the mission's originally planned primary science phase.

"This mission has helped us appreciate how much Mars -- a planet that has changed greatly over time -- continues to change today," said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL manages the mission.

Data from MRO have improved knowledge about three distinct periods on Mars. Observations of the oldest surfaces on the planet show that diverse types of watery environments existed -- some more favorable for life than others. More recently, water cycled as a gas between polar ice deposits and lower-latitude deposits of ice and snow, generating patterns of layering linked to cyclical changes similar to ice ages on Earth.

Dynamic activity on today's Mars includes fresh craters, avalanches, dust storms, seasonal freezing and thawing of carbon dioxide sheets, and summertime seeps of brine.

The mission provides three types of crucial support for rover and stationary lander missions to Mars. Its observations enable careful evaluation of potential landing sites. They also help rover teams choose routes and destinations. Together with NASA's Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001, MRO relays data from robots on Mars' surface to NASA Deep Space Network antennas on Earth, multiplying the productivity of the surface missions.

The mission has been investigating areas proposed as landing sites for future human missions in NASA's Journey to Mars.

"The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter remains a powerful asset for studying the Red Planet, with its six instruments all continuing capably a decade after orbit insertion. All this and the valuable infrastructure support that it provides for other Mars missions, present and future, make MRO a keystone of the current Mars Exploration Program," said Zurek.

Arrival at Mars

On March 10, 2006, the spacecraft fired its six largest rocket engines for about 27 minutes, slowing it down enough for the gravity of Mars to catch it into orbit. Those engines had been used only once before, for 15 seconds during the first trajectory adjustment during the seven-month flight from Earth to Mars. They have been silent since arrival day. Smaller engines provide thrust for orbit adjustment maneuvers.

For its first three weeks at Mars, the spacecraft flew elongated, 35-hour orbits ranging as far as 27,000 miles (43,000 kilometers) from the Red Planet. During the next six months, a process called aerobraking used hundreds of carefully calculated dips into the top of the Martian atmosphere to gradually adjust the size of the orbit. Since September 2006, the craft has been flying nearly circular orbits lasting about two hours, at altitudes from 155 to 196 miles (250 to 316 kilometers).

The spacecraft's two large solar panels give MRO a wingspan the length of a school bus. That surface area helped with atmospheric drag during aerobraking and still cranks out about 2,000 watts of electricity when the panels face the sun. Generous power enables the spacecraft to transmit a torrent of data through its main antenna, a dish 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter. The total science data sent to Earth from MRO -- 264 terabits -- is more than all other interplanetary missions combined, past and present.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft with the capability to transmit copious data to suit the science goals of revealing Mars in great detail, which requires plenty of data.

For example, the mission's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, managed by the University of Arizona, Tucson, has returned images that show features as small as a desk anywhere in observations that now have covered about 2.4 percent of the Martian surface, an area equivalent to two Alaskas, with many locations imaged repeatedly. The Context Camera (CTX), managed by Malin Space Systems, San Diego, has imaged more than 95 percent of Mars, with resolution showing features smaller than a tennis court. The Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM), managed by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland, also has imaged nearly 98 percent of the planet in multiple visual-light and infrared wavelengths, providing composition information at scales of 100 to 200 yards or meters per pixel.

For more information about MRO, visit:

For more information about NASA's journey to Mars, visit: