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NASA: Mars Odyssey is in orbit

A drawing of Mars Odyssey approaching the red planet
A drawing of Mars Odyssey approaching the red planet  

By Amanda Barnett

(CNN) -- A new odyssey to Mars is under way.

After a journey of about 285 million miles (456 million kilometers), NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft arrived at the red planet Tuesday night and successfully fired its main engine to slow into orbit, according to mission managers.

"I am proud and happy to report that Odyssey is in orbit and is healthy," said Matt Landano, Odyssey project manager.

"We absolutely hit the bull's eye on the incoming trajectory," said Bob Mase, the Odyssey mission navigator.

MESSAGE BOARD: Space Exploration 
Study guide for students: Learning more about Mars exploration 

There was applause and hugs at Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, when mission managers received data indicating that Odyssey had successfully fired its main engine. The 20-minute maneuver slowed the spacecraft and allowed it to be captured for an elliptical orbit.

The Deep Space Network, a group of three communications facilities placed around the world to track satellites, reported it had a solid lock on Odyssey's signal.

Mission controllers will use aerobraking -- basically dragging Odyssey on the atmosphere of Mars -- for the next few months to continue moving the spacecraft into its working orbit some 250 miles above the planet. But Mase said, "The hardest part is getting to this point, getting to Mars, and it looks like we did that."

Launched on April 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the $300-million, 1.7-ton ship was designed to search for water, map surface minerals and measure radiation levels on Mars -- observations that could provide clues about possible extraterrestrial life. The probe will not land.

Odyssey will map Mars for 917 Earth days, then serve as a communications relay for future missions to Mars now scheduled for 2003 and 2004, according to NASA.

The challenge of Mars

The challenge of Mars

Odyssey is the first spacecraft to arrive at Mars since two NASA spacecraft were lost in 1999.

"How sweet it is," said NASA administrator Daniel Goldin in a news conference to announce the success of Mars Odyssey.

"Putting the Odyssey into orbit about Mars is an achievement that each and every American ought to take pride in," he said. "It embodies the true American spirit that we can win after being knocked down a few times."

In September of 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter presumably burned up in the martian atmosphere because propulsion engineers failed to convert English and metric units resulting in a miscalculation of the spacecraft's trajectory.

Three months later, its sibling spacecraft, the Mars Polar Lander, likely crashed because a software glitch shut off the descent engines prematurely, sending it on a fatal plunge.

According to NASA, of the 30 missions sent to Mars by three countries over 40 years, fewer than one-third have been successful.

A joint odyssey

Mars Odyssey mission manager Matt Landano, far right, shakes hands with other managers after learning Odyssey had made it into orbit.
Mars Odyssey mission manager Matt Landano, far right, shakes hands with other managers after learning Odyssey had made it into orbit.  

Odyssey won't be alone in monitoring Mars. It will join another satellite, Mars Global Surveyor, which has been circling Mars since 1997, snapping hundreds of thousands of high-resolution pictures.

Surveyor's camera can spot details as small as 3 meters. The camera onboard Odyssey cannot focus as well, but it will have the ability to "see" much more than physical topography.

The new orbiter is equipped with an infrared imaging camera that can distinguish the mineral content of geologic features only 110 yards (100 meters) across, compared to 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) for a similar instrument on the Mars Global Surveyor.


• Mars Odyssey
• Mars Global Surveyor
• Space Telescope Science Institute Home Page
• National Space Science Data Center
• Mars Exploration Homepage
• Mars Meteorite Home Page (JPL)
• Mars: Planet Profile
• The Mars Society

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