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2002: Mars Odyssey starts interplanetary research



The previous century saw huge leaps for human space exploration from the first man on the moon to the launch of Voyager satellites and the Hubble telescope that would give us never-before seen detail of the furthest reaches of space. But while some were looking beyond our solar system, others were seeking the mysteries of our nearest planet. In 2002 an unmanned Nasa spacecraft began mapping the surface of Mars using a thermal emission imaging system. Over the next 18 years and beyond it would continue to seek and deliver essential information about the planet’s geography, it’s history and its potential to hold extraterrestrial life.

The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft was developed by NASA and built by Lockheed Martin at a cost of $297 million. 

It was built with three primary instruments that would help it fulfil its function in mapping the surface of Mars: 

  • Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS)
  • Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) - including a High Energy Neutron Detector (HEND) provided by Russia.
  • Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE)

It was launched from Cape Canaveral in April 2001 and by that October had reached Mars orbit. The main engine fired to decelerate it, allowing it to be captured by the gravitational pull of the planet, and it began a three month process of aerobraking, using aerodynamic drag from the upper reaches of the Martian atmosphere to gradually slow down and reduce and circulise its orbit. Using the atmosphere itself as a decelerant, it was able to save fuel and therefore weight. It’s orbit is Sun-synchronous, meaning it is always in daylight, providing optimal lighting for its photographs. 

It’s 32-month primary mission officially began on the 19th February when it began using its thermal emission imaging system to map the surface of Mars. 

During that primary mission, the craft delivered vast amounts of previously unseen detail about the structure and geography of the planet to scientists back on Earth. The biggest discovery came on the 28th May 2002 when Odyssey’s GRS instrument detected large amounts of hydrogen on the planet - a sign that there must be ice lying within a meter of the planet’s surface. 

It went on to map the distribution of water below the surface, discovering vast deposits of bulk water ice near the surface of equatorial regions. 

Odyssey also fulfilled a secondary purpose as the primary means of communication for NASA’s Mars surface explorers. 

Though the initial mission was to only last 32 months, Odyssey’s time in Mars orbit would last much longer than that with various mission extensions keeping its operation necessary. It’s currently expected to continue operating until 2025. Today, more than 18 years after launch, it remains active and currently holds the record for longest-surviving continually active spacecraft in orbit around a planet other than Earth.

50 Years of Engineering

To celebrate Fircroft’s 50th year, we’re looking back over the engineering accomplishments of the last half-century. Read last week’s spotlight on a world record set by the 7km long BHP train in 2001. 

Find out how you can be part of the great engineering feats of the future by registering your CV with Fircroft today.

Tags: Engineering
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2002: Mars Odyssey starts interplanetary research - Time to read 3 min
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