Just how long can vehicles keep running? The vehicle to which I am referring is very specialized. It all started at 11:02 am Eastern Daylight time on April 7, 2001 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. That was the launch time for the Boeing Delta II rocket which carried the Mars Odyssey spacecraft away from Earth’s gravity into space.
You may wonder how the spacecraft got the name Odyssey. Your first and only guess is absolutely correct. The mission, both the launch and reaching Mars orbit, occurred in the year 2001. That is the obvious connection. The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” is where they got the idea of naming the spacecraft. They went as far as to get Arthur C. Clarke’s, the author of the book who also co-wrote the screenplay with Stanley Kubrick, endorsement of the mission and using the name Odyssey.
Odyssey was designed for a four year mission and according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but it took only three years for the Mars Odyssey to complete its prime mission. In December 2010 it became the longest lasting mission Mars spacecraft ever. According to Mars Odyssey Project Manager David Lehman of the JPL “Every day for more than five years, Odyssey has been extending its record for how long a spacecraft can keep working at Mars. The spacecraft is remarkably healthy, and we have enough fuel to last for several more years.”
What has Odyssey actually accomplished? The answer is more that they could have anticipated. In my opinion, the most significant discovery was made by one suite of instruments on the spacecraft.
I’m sure you remember when the announced was made that evidence of water ice was found close to the surface in large areas of Mars. That discovery is monumental. Water is necessary for life as we know it, so this means there is a possibility that at some time there could have been life on Mars. Other equipment measured the amount of radiation the craft was exposed to on the way to Mars and as Odyssey orbits the Red Planet. The radiation data will be used for future manned Mars missions to insure that the astronauts will be protected from the harmful radiation.
One year on Mars lasts 26 months. That’s how long it takes to get through the four seasons. Odyssey has been observing and taking pictures of Mars for more than 6 Martian years.During that time period Odyssey completed the mapping of the entire planet. That will give NASA scientists detailed information that will aid in determining the best landing sites for future robotic landings and even our eventual manned landings on Mars.
Odyssey’s orbital path had been such that it flew over ground that was either in afternoon lighting or pre-dawn darkness. In 2014 and 2015 the scientists at JPL altered the orbital path in stages in such a way as to be able to observe Mars in early morning light. They changed the geometry of the orbit with relation to the sun to get the better angle for viewing the Martian surface.
The spacecraft has also been used as a relay station to send back to Earth data and pictures from the two rovers, Opportunity and Spirit. They estimate about 90% of the data from those two rovers is sent through Odyssey. NASA’s Curiosity rover’s data shares Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to transmit signals back to Earth
Nobody knows how much longer Odyssey will be functional, but they will continue to be grateful for every minute it is in operation and any discoveries it makes.
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