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New Mars satellite begins search for water

Drawing of Mars Odyssey spacecraft
Drawing of Mars Odyssey spacecraft  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- A new Mars satellite turned on its scientific instruments this week, kicking off a mapping mission in search of hot spots and hidden water on the red planet.

The Mars Odyssey flicked on its visible and infrared camera, and a spectrometer that can detect more than one dozen elements, including hydrogen, which could indicate the presence of frozen water underground, according to NASA.

The $300 million mission, the first to visit Mars since NASA lost two spacecraft in late 1999, began orbiting the red planet in October after a half-year trip from Earth.

The satellite required months to normalize its position. It dipped into the atmosphere to slow down and shift from an elliptical to circular orbit.

Technicians will spend the coming days warming up the camera for optimal scientific use. It should be fully operational within the week.

"As with any new camera, it takes a while to get all the settings right to optimize the picture quality," said Philip Christensen, a mission scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe, on Tuesday.

"Once we get the system calibrated, there will be a tremendous flow of image data."

The first image should be released on March 1.

Conduct an instrument check on Mars Odyssey 

The spectrometer instruments have started collecting data on the composition of the martian surface. The gamma ray sensor was opened Monday and will be fully operational later this week.

After those instruments are fully warmed up and working, NASA technicians will turn their attention to an onboard radiation detector, which broke down during the Odyssey flight from Earth.

A diagnosis and possible prescription for the ailing instrument could take weeks, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which manages the mission.

Odyssey joins another Mars orbiter conducting scientific studies. Since its arrival in late 1997, NASA's Global Surveyor has snapped tens of thousands of detailed images of the red planet surface.


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