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Mars Odyssey orbiter captures unprecedented images of the Red Planet

NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, a veteran in Martian exploration, has achieved yet another milestone in its long-standing mission. Celebrating its 22nd year at Mars, the spacecraft has captured a series of awe-inspiring panoramic images of the red planet.

Brand new perspective 

Jonathon Hill of Arizona State University is the operations lead for Odyssey’s camera, called the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). 

“If there were astronauts in orbit over Mars, this is the perspective they would have,” said Hill. “No Mars spacecraft has ever had this kind of view before.”

The collection of ten images, taken from approximately 250 miles above Mars, showcases a breathtaking view of the Martian landscape enveloped in layers of clouds and dust. These visuals provide a stunning representation of Mars and will greatly improve our scientific understanding of the planet’s atmosphere.

Behind the scenes 

Creating such an expansive view wasn’t without its challenges. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Space, the teams responsible for managing and operating Odyssey, invested three months in planning these observations

THEMIS, an infrared camera sensitive to warmth, typically points straight down and is fixed in place on the orbiter. Its primary function involves mapping ice, rock, sand, and dust on Mars’ surface, along with monitoring temperature changes.

Complex operation

To capture a unique perspective of Mars, the entire spacecraft had to be rotated almost 90 degrees – a maneuver that required precise calculations to ensure the solar panels remained sunlit without overheating sensitive equipment. 

This reorientation temporarily cut off communication with Earth, adding another layer of complexity to the operation.

The Martian atmosphere

The innovative method allowed for the observation of details in the Martian atmosphere that would otherwise remain unseen from a typical overhead perspective.

“I think of it as viewing a cross-section, a slice through the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey’s project scientist at JPL. “There’s a lot of detail you can’t see from above, which is how THEMIS normally makes these measurements.

Mars Odyssey’s images of Phobos 

Apart from capturing Mars, the mission also focused on Phobos, one of Mars’ moons. 

By altering the angle and lighting conditions under which Phobos was observed, the team added unique data to their existing collection, which could potentially contribute to understanding the moon’s origin.

Study implications 

These efforts are not only significant for the Odyssey mission but also for the upcoming Mars Moon eXplorer (MMX) mission, a collaborative effort between NASA and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). 

MMX aims to return samples from Phobos and Deimos, and insights gained from Odyssey’s observations of Phobos will be invaluable.

Odyssey’s latest accomplishment marks a significant milestone in Mars exploration, offering unprecedented views of the Martian horizon and contributing vital data that could shape future missions and scientific understanding of the red planet and its moons. 

The Mars Odyssey orbiter mission

The Mars Odyssey mission, a pivotal chapter in the exploration of Mars, was launched by NASA on April 7, 2001. Its primary objective was to map the Martian surface and search for evidence of water and ice, thus paving the way for future Mars exploration missions.

Upon reaching Mars’ orbit on October 24, 2001, Mars Odyssey began a meticulous mapping of the planet’s surface using its advanced suite of scientific instruments. As mentioned previously, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), a key instrument aboard, provided detailed images of the Martian surface in both visible and infrared light. These images were crucial in identifying the mineral composition of Mars’ surface and in detecting temperature variations that hinted at the presence of water ice.

Important discoveries from Mars Odyssey

A significant breakthrough came when Mars Odyssey discovered vast amounts of hydrogen beneath the Martian surface, particularly near the polar regions. This discovery strongly suggested the presence of water ice, a vital resource for human missions to Mars in the future, as well as a potential indicator of past Martian life.

In addition to its scientific achievements, Mars Odyssey served as a vital communication relay for other Mars missions, including the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander. This role proved essential in ensuring the success and longevity of these missions, as Mars Odyssey relayed data and commands between Earth and the Martian surface.

Understanding the Martian environment

Mars Odyssey also contributed significantly to our understanding of the Martian environment, studying the planet’s radiation levels to assess the potential risks to future human explorers. Its findings helped in planning for the protection and safety of astronauts on future human missions to Mars.

Throughout its mission, Mars Odyssey set records for its longevity and continued to provide valuable data well beyond its initial mission timeline. Its enduring success stands as a testament to human ingenuity and our relentless pursuit of knowledge about our neighboring planet.

The Mars Odyssey mission, by mapping the Martian terrain, searching for water, and serving as a communication relay, has laid a solid foundation for the ongoing exploration of Mars.

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