2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft by NASA, one of the longest surviving spacecraft

Odyssey - science orbit configuration

NASA has confirmed that its spacecraft Mars Odyssey one of the longest surviving spacecraft outside the earth has resumed full service following recovery after entering a safe standby mode on Dec. 26, 2016. The Odyssey project team has diagnosed the cause and is restoring the orbiter to full operations

Odyssey launched on Boeing's Delta II 7925
Odyssey launched on Boeing’s Delta II 7925. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

History of the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft:

The 2001 Mars Odyssey is the remaining part of the Mars Surveyor 2001 Project, which originally consisted of two separately launched missions, The Mars Surveyor 2001 Orbiter, and the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander. The lander spacecraft was canceled as part of the reorganization of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA. The orbiter, renamed as 2001 Mars Odyssey, was planned to orbit around the Mars for three years, with the objective of conducting a detailed mineralogical analysis of the planet’s surface from orbit and measuring the radiation environment. The mission’s primary science goals are to gather data to help determine whether the environment on Mars was ever conducive to life, to characterize the climate and geology of Mars, and to study potential radiation hazards to possible future astronaut missions. In addition to its direct contributions to planetary science, Odyssey other goal is to support for other missions in NASA’s Journey to Mars through communication-relay service and observations of candidate landing sites.

In December 2010, The NASA spacecraft broke a record in 2010 for being the longest-serving piece of machinery to work on Mars.

Mission Timeline:

The Odyssey spacecraft was launched on April 07, 2001 from Cape Canaveral, United States using Boeing’s Delta II 7925 spacecraft launcher that uses nine strap-on solid rocket motors. Each of the nine solid rocket motors is 1 meter (3.28 feet) in diameter and 13 meters (42.6 feet) long; each contains 11,765 kilograms (25,937 pounds) of hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) propellant and provides an average thrust of 485,458 newtons at liftoff. The casings on the solid rocket motors are made of lightweight graphite epoxy.

Following are the phases of the Odyssey spacecraft after it was launched on April 07, 2001.

Interplanetary Cruise stage:

The interplanetary cruise phase is the period of travel from the Earth to Mars and lasts about 200 days. It begins with the first contact by the DSN after launch and extends until seven days before Mars arrival. Primary activities during the cruise include checking out of the spacecraft in its cruise configuration, checkout and monitoring of the spacecraft and the science instruments, and navigation activities necessary to determine and correct Odyssey’s flight path to Mars.

Science activities planned for the cruise phase include payload health and status checks, instrument calibrations, and data taking by some of the science instruments as spacecraft limitations allow.

Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI):

Mars Odyssey flight team successfully delivered the spacecraft into orbit around Mars as scheduled on October 24, 2001 (Universal Time).


Spacecraft Areobraking
Spacecraft Aerobraking from the artist. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Aerobraking is a spaceflight technique wherein an orbiting spacecraft brushes against the top of a planetary atmosphere. The friction of the atmosphere against the surface of the spacecraft slows down and lowers the craft’s orbital altitude. The solar panels are used to provide the maximum drag in a symmetrical position that allows some control as the spacecraft passes through the atmosphere.

Science Operations:

The science mission began roughly 90 days after the spacecraft was captured into orbit about Mars.  During the science phase and extended mission, the thermal emission imaging system takes multi-spectral thermal infrared images to make global maps of the minerals on the Mar’s surface and also acquires visible images with a resolution of about 18 meters (59 feet).

Communications Relay stage:

Odyssey is serving as a communications relay station for the twin NASA Mars Exploration Rovers. Odyssey has transmitted 85% of the data from Spirit and Opportunity to Earth and will continue to provide the relay function throughout the rovers’ and Odyssey’s extended mission.

Different types of Spacecraft launched from the Earth:

Flyby Spacecraft:

A flyby is a path a spacecraft follows past a planet or other body in space to get scientific data about the planets. In a flyby, the spacecraft passes close but isn’t captured into an orbit by gravity. Flybys commonly use gravity assists to “slingshot” a space probe on its journey to its primary objective.

Venera 1 is the first spacecraft launched from earth and Mariner 2 is the first successful non-lunar planetary encounter and first successful Venus flyby.

Lander Spacecraft:

A lander is a spacecraft which descends toward and comes to rest on the surface of an astronomical body. A lander makes a soft landing after which the probe remains functional. Luna or Lunik 2 is the first Lander spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon, and the first man-made object to land on another celestial body.

Orbiter Spacecraft:

A spacecraft designed to go into orbit, especially one that does not subsequently land. Space Shuttle Enterprise was the first orbiter of the Space Shuttle system which was launched on September 17, 1976. Enterprise was built from NASA as part of the Space Shuttle program to perform atmospheric test flights. 

Mars Odyssey spacecraft Mission:

With more than 10 years in orbit and counting, the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft has spent more time in orbit around the Red Planet, collecting data on Mars’ climate and geology. It also serves as a key communications relay for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity.

In 2002, the orbiter’s discovery of hydrogen just below the Mar’s surface prompted the creation of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which in 2008 confirmed theories that the element was contained in frozen water in Mars’ high-latitude regions.

Technologies Used:

The 2001 Mars Odyssey mission makes use of many innovative technologies, but the most important among them are the three instrument packages. All three involve the use of spectrometers.


The Thermal Emission Imaging System is a camera that images Mars in the visible and infrared parts of the spectrum in order to determine the distribution of minerals

Gamma-ray Spectrometer (GRS):

Gamma ray spectro meter
Gamma ray spectrometer (GRS). Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The gamma ray spectrometer has measured the abundance distribution of many elements of the periodic table in Mar’s which includes hydrogen, silicon, iron, potassium, thorium, and chlorine. Knowing what elements are at or near the surface gives detailed information about how Mars has changed over time.

Neutron Spectrometer (NS):

The Mars Odyssey’s Neutron Spectrometer (NS) was built by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Water marks captured from Mars
Water marks captured from Mars odyssey’s Neutron spectrometer in Mars. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The NS instrument is designed to detect neutrons in three energy bands: thermal, epithermal and fast. Each energy class corresponds to the degree to which planetary neutrons have been “moderated”, or been in contact with other planetary matter. These free neutrons are produced in collisions between galactic cosmic rays and planetary matter. As it turns out, hydrogen is a very good moderator of neutrons and hence the detector is quite sensitive to the presence of hydrogen on the surface of Mars. Large concentrations of hydrogen are most likely indicative of water (H2O) in liquid or ice form.

High Energy Neutron Detector (HEND):

The High Energy Neutron Detector HEND was developed in the Laboratory of space gamma-ray spectroscopy of the Space Research Institute (Moscow, Russia). It was constructed under contract with Russian Aviation Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) in accordance with the Federal Program of Basic Space Exploration of Russia.

NASA MARS odyssey's epithermal neutrons
MARS Epithermal neutrons captured using NASA MARS odyssey’s. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The High Energy Neutron Detector (HEND) is designed to measure the flux of neutrons at different energies. This data will be used to determine neutron albedo parameters for use in interpretation of the gamma-ray data and to construct a global map of regions with subsurface water or ice.

Martian Radiation Experiment (MARIE):

The Martian Radiation Experiment is an experiment conducted by Mars Odyssey spacecraft to measure the radiation environment of Mars using an energetic particle spectrometer.

This science investigation characterized aspects of the radiation environment both on the way to Mars and in the Mar’s orbit. The experiment predicted anticipated radiation doses that would be experienced by future astronauts and is helping to determine possible effects of Mar’s radiation on human beings.

Mars Exploration Space radiation comes from cosmic rays emitted by our local star, the sun, and from stars beyond our solar system as well. Space radiation can trigger cancer and cause damage to the central nervous system. A spectrometer inside the instrument will measure the energy from these radiation sources.

The design of Spacecraft:

The shape of Mars Odyssey is anything but uniform with similar structure as other orbiters. The framework of the spacecraft is composed mostly of aluminum and titanium. The use of titanium, a lighter and more expensive metal, is an efficient way of conserving mass while retaining strength.

Odyssey - science orbit configuration
Odyssey – science orbit configuration. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Mars Odyssey’s dimensions are:

2.2 meters (7.2 feet) long

1.7 meters (5.6 feet) tall

2.6 meters (8.5 feet) wide

Weight: 725.0 kilograms (1598.4 pounds).

Objectives of the Spacecraft:

The main objectives of Mars Odyssey Mission Objectives are to contribute to the five science goals and meet its specific goal of determining Mars’ habitability.  Mars Odyssey has the following science objectives.

  • Globally map the elemental composition of the surface.
  • Determine the abundance of hydrogen in the shallow subsurface.
  • Acquire high spatial and spectral resolution images of the surface mineralogy.
  • Provide information on the morphology of the Mar’s surface.
  • Characterize the Mar’s near-space radiation environment as related to radiation-induced risk to human explorers. 

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