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Stakes high for new Mars orbiter

The 2001 Mars Odyssey lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, earlier this month.  

Odyssey, currently en route to red planet, follows two failed missions

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(CNN) -- Somewhere between you and Mars, the Odyssey orbiter surfs the sky.

Named for Arthur C. Clarke's science-fiction novel and movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey," the $300 million probe left Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 7, with the hopes and, some say, the fate of NASA riding on it.

The mission comes on the heels of two Mars-related disasters in 1999, when an orbiter burned in the red planet's atmosphere and a lander crashed fatally into its surface. And just this year, NASA scrapped plans to build an updated space shuttle after investing about $1 billion in the project.

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Exploring Mars: The 2001 Mars Odyssey is slated to become the first spacecraft to visit Mars since two disastrous failures in 1999.
 
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Experts say NASA cannot afford another mishap. The space agency has seen its budget decline all but two times over the last eight years -- and at a time when all federal programs face a slow economy and fiscally conservative presidential administration.

Nonetheless, NASA scientists said they are extremely excited about Odyssey and its follow-up mission, twin land rovers set to head to Mars in 2003.

If it arrives in Mars' orbit on cue in October, the Odyssey will scour the red planet for signs of underground water, hydrogen and volcanic activity. Scientists say the research could provide valuable information on extraterrestrial life and pave the way for future human colonization.

"Life on Earth was not a cosmic fluke but part of a broad imperative," NASA deputy administrator Ed Weiler told reporters earlier this month. "Mars is a lot like Earth. And billions of years ago it had some kind of atmosphere and huge quantities of flowing water."

Partnering up with Surveyor

Less than a week after it launched aboard a Delta II rocket, the Mars Odyssey was already around a million miles from Earth -- with 285 million miles to go before it reached Mars.

Odyssey is expected to join another NASA satellite already orbiting the red planet. Mars Global Surveyor has been circling Mars since 1997, snapping hundreds of thousands of high-resolution pictures.

The two spacecrafts are designed to complement one another. Surveyor's camera can spot details as small as 3 meters, focusing better than the camera onboard Odyssey.

But the new orbiter's camera can "see" more than the physical topography or "outside" of the red planet.

By spotting possible hot spots, Odyssey could help determine whether and when Mars experienced volcanic activity.

Spotting hydrogen a key

Odyssey's infrared imaging camera can also distinguish the mineral content of geologic features -- hills, valleys and the like -- only 100 meters across. A similar instrument on the Mars Global Surveyor, in contrast, can only identify the make-up of sectors 3 km (1.9 miles) in size.

The orbiter also features a gamma ray spectrometer, which can peer into the shallow subsurface of Mars to measure elements, including hydrogen.

"We believe hydrogen may be the clue, the fingerprint, of where water may be," said Jim Garvin, Mars program scientist.

Scientists speculate hydrogen is probably present in the form of water ice. The spectrometer is expected to measure permanent ground ice and how it changes with the seasons, NASA said.

If liquid or ice water, or even hydrogen itself, is present, scientists say it might be possible for humans to inhabit the red planet. Not only might astronauts be able to find water, just as importantly they would be able to create fuel for the long flight back to Earth.

A great deal at stake

But all these scientific possibilities hinge on a successful mission, something NASA hasn't taken for granted given the fatal problems with its last two Mars missions.

In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter presumably burned up in the Martian atmosphere because propulsion engineers failed to convert English (feet and inches) into metric units (meters and centimeters).

Three months later, its sibling spacecraft, the Mars Polar Lander, crashed into the red planet. NASA scientists say a software glitch prematurely shut off the descent engines.

The failures prompted a NASA overhaul, as the space agency cancelled several missions scheduled over the next decade. Those that survived were given much higher budgets and subjected to more critical review.

And of these, only the Mars missions get full funding in President George W. Bush's proposed 2002 budget. Bush offered a rare 2-percent hike for NASA, with the Odyssey getting support at the expense of other programs such as a mission to Pluto, international space station projects and initiatives to monitor world climate changes.

CNN's Richard Stenger contributed to this report

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
 

imperative

expressive of a command; not to be avoided or evaded

 

topography

physical and natural features, typically those on the surface of a planet, object, etc.

 

infrared

situated outside the visible spectrum, at its red end



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