NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft launched 20 years ago on April 7, making it the oldest spacecraft still operating on the Red Planet. The orbiter, which takes its name from 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, providing a window to the past. so that scientists could reconstruct how the planet evolved.
But it has done much more than that, uncovering ice-water treasures, serving as a crucial communications link for other spacecraft, and helping pave the way not only for safer landings but for future astronauts as well.
Here is a partial list of the many Odyssey achievements.
Martian ice mapping
The two decades of Odyssey data have been a boon for researchers working to determine where water ice is locked on the planet. Understanding the water cycle on Mars, a once much wetter planet like Earth, offers insight into how it has changed over time: How is water moving around the planet today? Does the tilt of the planet affect where the ice is stable? Odyssey’s discoveries have helped answer those questions.
“Before Odyssey, we didn’t know where this water was stored on the planet,” said project scientist Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who is leading the Odyssey mission. “We first detected it from orbit and then confirmed that it was there using the Phoenix lander.”
Water ice reservoirs are also needed to help astronauts survive on Mars and to provide fuel for their spacecraft. (In fact, the astronauts were the focus of an instrument aboard the Odyssey that measured the amount of space radiation they would have to deal with before it stopped working in 2003.)
The orbiter finds the water ice using its gamma ray spectrometer (GRS) detector, which has proven to be a capable hunter of hydrogen near the surface, a substitute for water ice. The GRS measures the number of different elements on the Martian surface and also serves as a node in NASA’s interplanetary gamma-ray burst (GRB) detection network, which identifies the locations of GRB sources for astronomical observations of tracing.
What is mars made of
Look at almost any mapping study of the Martian surface, and it probably includes data from Odyssey. For many years, the most comprehensive global maps of Mars were made using Odyssey’s infrared camera, called the Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS. The camera measures surface temperature day and night, allowing scientists to determine what physical materials exist, such as rocks, sand, or dust. Your data reveals the presence of these materials based on how they heat up or cool down over the course of a Martian day.
The net effect of two decades of all that mapping? Scientists have not only used the data to map networks of valleys and craters, but have also been able to detect sandstones, iron-rich rocks, salts and more – findings that help delve deeper into the history of Mars. “It’s hard to overstate how the THEMIS global map has filled in the gaps in our knowledge,” said Laura Kerber of JPL, associate scientist on the Odyssey project.
THEMIS has sent more than 1 million images since it began circling Mars. The images and maps that are produced highlight the presence of hazards, such as topographic features and rocks, but also help ensure the safety of future astronauts by showing the location of resources such as water ice. This helps the Mars science community and NASA decide where to send landers and rovers, including the Perseverance rover, which landed on February 18, 2021.
Routine calls home
From the beginning, Odyssey has served as a long-distance call center for NASA rovers and landers, sending their data back to Earth as part of the Mars Relay Network. The idea of the Mars relay dates back to the 1970s, when the two Viking landers sent scientific data and images via an orbiter back to Earth. An orbiter can carry radios or antennas capable of sending more data than a surface spacecraft. But Odyssey made the process routine when it began transmitting data to and from NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
“When the twin rovers landed, the success of data transmission using the UHF frequency was a game changer,” said Chris Potts of JPL, Odyssey mission manager.
Every day, the rovers could go somewhere new and send fresh images back to Earth. Through a relay like Odyssey, scientists got more data earlier, while the public got more images of Mars to get excited about. Odyssey has supported more than 18,000 relay sessions. These days, it shares the communications task with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN, along with ESA’s (European Space Agency) Trace Gas Orbiter.
Odyssey has done such thorough work studying the Martian surface that scientists have begun rotating their THEMIS camera to capture unique views of the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. As with the Martian surface, studying the thermophysics of each moon helps scientists determine the properties of the materials on their surfaces. Such information can offer glimpses of its past: It is unclear whether the moons are captured asteroids or chunks of Mars, ripped from the surface by an ancient impact.
Future missions, such as the Japanese Space Agency’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) spacecraft, will seek to land on these moons. In the distant future, missions could even create bases for astronauts. And if they do, they will depend on data from an orbiter that began its odyssey at the beginning of the millennium.
THEMIS was built and is operated by Arizona State University in Tempe. Odyssey’s gamma ray spectrometer was provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Russian Institute for Space Research. The Odyssey project prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena.
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Mars Odyssey observes the Martian moons
Pasadena CA (JPL) February 26, 2018
Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, are seen in this film assembled from 19 images taken by the Mars Odyssey orbiter’s Thermal Emission Imaging System camera, or THEMIS. The images were taken with visible wavelength light. THEMIS also recorded thermo-infrared images in the same scan. The apparent movement is due to the progression of the camera’s observation during the 17-second span of February 15, 2018, not the movement of the two moons. This was the second observation … read more