When NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey launches in April to explore the fourth planet from the Sun, it will carry a suite of scientific instruments designed to tell us what makes up the Martian surface, and provide vital information about potential radiation hazards for future human explorers.
"The launch of 2001 Mars Odyssey represents a milestone in our exploration of Mars -- the first launch in our restructured Mars Exploration Program we announced last October," said Dr. Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC. "Mars continues to surprise us at every turn. We expect Odyssey to remove some of the uncertainties and help us plan where we must go with future missions."
Set for launch April 7 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, Odyssey is NASA's first mission to Mars since the loss of two spacecraft in 1999. Other than our Moon, Mars has attracted more spacecraft exploration attempts than any other object in the solar system, and no other planet has proved as daunting to success. Of the 30 missions sent to Mars by three countries over 40 years, fewer than one-third have been successful.
The Odyssey team conducted vigorous reviews and incorporated "lessons learned" in the mission plan. "The project team has looked at the people, processes, and design to understand and reduce our mission risk," said George Pace, 2001 Mars Odyssey project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA. "We haven't been satisfied with just fixing the problems from the previous missions. We've been trying to anticipate and prevent other things that could jeopardize the success of the mission."
Odyssey is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term robotic exploration initiative launched in 1996 with Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor. "The scientific trajectory of the restructured Mars Exploration Program begins a new era of reconnaissance with the Mars Odyssey orbiter," said Dr. Jim Garvin, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "Odyssey will help identify and ultimately target those places on Mars where future rovers and landers must visit to unravel the mysteries of the Red Planet".
NASA's latest explorer carries three scientific instruments to map the chemical and mineralogical makeup of Mars: a thermal-emission imaging system, a gamma ray spectrometer and a Martian radiation environment experiment. The imaging system will map the planet with high-resolution thermal images and give scientists an increased level of detail to help them understand how the mineralogy of the planet relates to the landforms. The part of Odyssey's imaging system that takes pictures in visible light will see objects with a clarity that fills the gaps between the Viking orbiter cameras of the 1970s and today's high-resolution images from Mars Global Surveyor.
Like a virtual shovel digging into the surface, Odyssey's gamma ray spectrometer will allow scientists to peer into the shallow subsurface of Mars, the upper few centimeters of the crust, to measure many elements, including the amount of hydrogen that exists. Since hydrogen is mostly likely present in the form of water ice, the spectrometer will be able to measure permanent ground ice and how that changes with the seasons.
"For the first time at Mars we will have a spacecraft that is equipped to find evidence for present near-surface water and to map mineral deposits from past water activity," said Dr. Steve Saunders, 2001 Mars Odyssey project scientist at JPL. "Despite the wealth of information from previous missions, exactly what Mars is made of is not fully known, so this mission will give us a basic understanding about the chemistry and mineralogy of the surface."
The Martian radiation environment experiment will be the first to look at radiation levels at Mars as they relate to the potential hazards faced by future astronauts. The experiment will take data on the way to Mars and in orbit around the Red Planet. After completing its primary mission, the Odyssey orbiter will provide a communications relay for future American and international landers, including NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, scheduled for launch in 2003.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. Principal investigators at Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and NASA's Johnson Space Center will operate the science instruments. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, CO, is the prime contractor for the project, and developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations will be conducted jointly from JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Lockheed Martin.
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