Mars-bound satellite is flying high
(CNN) -- A spacecraft on its way to Mars to search for signs of water and life has performed "exceedingly well" since its launch, NASA said.
The 2001 Mars Odyssey is slated to become the first spacecraft to visit Mars since two disastrous failures in 1999. Its observations could offer valuable information about possible extraterrestrial life and future human colonization.
Named for Arthur C. Clarke's science-fiction novel and movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey," the $300 million probe should reach Mars in October after a journey of 286 million miles (460 million km).
Since blasting off Saturday aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Odyssey's flight has gone smoothly, NASA said. An alarm triggered by a temperature sensor shortly after launch was no cause for concern, mission engineers concluded.
The flight team commanded the craft to transition from safe mode into normal operating mode and spin down its gyro-like reaction wheels to remove excess momentum.
A trajectory correction maneuver is planned for April 16. But the flight path already is so accurate that Odyssey will require only a minor amount of propellant, saving more fuel for when the craft brakes and goes into Mars orbit in six months.
Looking for hot spots
Designed to scour the red planet for evidence of underground water and geologic hot spots, Odyssey will join another NASA satellite already orbiting the red planet. Mars Global Surveyor has been circling Mars since 1997, snapping tens 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 100 meters (110 yards) across, compared to 3 km (1.9 miles) for a similar instrument on the Mars Global Surveyor.
By spotting possible hot spots, Odyssey could help determine whether Mars had volcanic activity in the recent geological past. Odyssey also has a gamma ray spectrometer, which can peer into the shallow subsurface of Mars to measure elements, including hydrogen.
Because 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.
Odyssey could also help identify favorable landing spots for twin rovers that NASA plans to launch in 2003. And it will relay radio communications between Earth and the rovers and later probes.
Reeling from 1999 losses
The mission is the first since NASA revamped its Mars program, which suffered the disastrous losses of an orbiter and lander less than two years ago.
In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter presumably burned up in the martian atmosphere because propulsion engineers failed to convert English and metric units.
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 into the red planet.
NASA revised its Mars program after the mishaps, canceling numerous missions over the next decade. Those that survived were given much higher budgets and subjected to more critical review.
NASA has no firm plans for a human mission to Mars. But one onboard experiment will monitor martian radiation levels, checking possible hazards for future colonists.
New Mars odyssey about to begin
2001 Mars Odyssey
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