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Anniversary Party for Odyssey at Mars

January 11, 2004

The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft orbits  Mars, providing global studies.
The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft orbits Mars, providing global studies.
As we celebrate Spirit's success, another of our robotic friends is celebrating an anniversary of sorts. Last week, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter reached an important milestone: a full Mars year (687 Earth days) of science mapping. During this martian year, it has:

  • shown us where water ice lies buried beneath the surface;

  • analyzed "what Mars is made of" by identifying minerals and chemical elements; and,

  • studied the martian radiation environment to help us understand potential health effects on future human explorers.

"Before you send any landers to Mars, you want to look at the planet as a whole. We call that 'global reconnaissance,'" said Bob Mase, Odyssey Mission Manager.

Mars Odyssey Mission Manager, Bob Mase
Mars Odyssey Mission Manager, Bob Mase.

To help rovers like Spirit and Opportunity be successful, orbiters must do the crucial work of mapping the planet, identifying scientifically interesting locations and classifying potential hazards at the landing sites. Odyssey, like its predecessor, Mars Global Surveyor, is a valuable asset in the convoy of martian spacecraft NASA continues to send to the red planet.

"We are both limited in what we can do. Orbiters can't scrape rocks and look at them microscopically, and rovers cannot traverse and image the entire planet. So, the two types of missions really complement one another," Mase said, from the desk where he monitors the spacecraft.

Spirit on the surface of Mars
Spirit on the surface of Mars
Spirit carries communications antennas that allow her to send pictures and other data back to Earth through the Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor orbiters.
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Beyond science studies of their own, orbiters have an important communications role to play. Not since Viking has NASA employed both orbiters and landed vehicles together. Today, the Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor orbiters are helping the Spirit rover "talk" to ground controllers at JPL.

"It's difficult to communicate from the surface of Mars directly to Earth," Mase said. "You'd need a big antenna and a lot of power. It turns out that the rovers can more efficiently send the information up to the orbiters, which are better equipped to relay the data back to Earth."

With this additional role, Odyssey team members may not have had much time to party on Odyssey's one-martian-year anniversary. They are receiving a pretty good gift though. During Spirit's time on Mars, 75% of the rover's pictures and data have come to Earth through Odyssey.
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