NASA spacecraft nearing Mars
By Amanda Barnett
(CNN) -- Mars is about to get a new visitor. After a journey of 285 million miles (456 million kilometers), NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft is scheduled to enter orbit around the red planet on Tuesday.
"The spacecraft is right on course," said Bob Mase, the lead navigator for the mission.
Launched on April 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the $300-million, 1.7-ton ship is slated to search for water, map surface minerals and measure radiation levels -- observations that could provide clues about possible extraterrestrial life. The probe will not land.
Odyssey will begin a critical engine burn to put it into orbit at 10:26 p.m. EDT on Tuesday. Engineers expect to lose the radio signal from the spacecraft as it goes behind Mars about 10 minutes after the burn begins.
"The next 20 minutes will likely be the longest 20 minutes of our lives," said Dave Spencer, Mars Odyssey mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"If all goes well, shortly before 8:00 p.m. (PDT) Odyssey should emerge from behind Mars and you'll see a lot of happy faces," said Spencer.
Spencer expects to know in a few hours whether the spacecraft made it to proper orbit about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Mars.
The challenge of Mars
Odyssey will be the first spacecraft to arrive at Mars since two NASA spacecraft were lost. 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.
"This is a tremendous challenge and many Mars missions in the past have faced challenges," Jim Garvin, NASA's lead Mars scientist.
According to NASA, of the 30 missions sent to Mars by three countries over 40 years, fewer than one-third have been successful. But Garvin said he feels the public understands how difficult it is to operate spacecraft in deep space and added that all systems look good for Odyssey.
"We are very confident and excited about this mission," he said at a briefing on Thursday.
Odyssey has had a problem with one of its science instruments.
A radiation detector called MARIE (Martian Radiation Environment Experiment) locked up on August 13 after engineers commanded it to downlink data. NASA will send up commands to try to restart the instrument after Odyssey safely is in orbit.
A joint odyssey
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.
Instrument on Mars-bound probe falters
August 22, 2001
Alpha astronauts: Trip to Mars is doable
August 21, 2001
Big ball would make Mars study a breeze
August 21, 2001
Solar wing becomes highest flying plane
August 15, 2001
Giant flood channels uncovered on Mars
August 3, 2001
Debate on Mars life rages long after Viking
July 20, 2001
Giant dust cloud cooks red planet
July 18, 2001
Mars in sights of Hubble camera, cruising probe
July 5, 2001
Researcher: Mars rock varnish hints of life
July 2, 2001
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
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
SPACE TOP STORIES:
NASA starts countdown to Mars mission
Shuttle probe could take six months
Shuttle widows grasp faith, each other
EPA approves new modified corn
Mexico saves island from tourism build-up
|Back to the top|