Odyssey spacecraft closes in on Mars in critical mission | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Odyssey spacecraft closes in on Mars in critical mission


PASADENA, Calif. (AP) – If all goes well, a NASA probe will conclude a six-month voyage spanning 286 million miles on Tuesday and enter orbit around Mars to begin mapping minerals, elements and frozen reservoirs of water across the dusty surface of the Red Planet.

For the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission is as much a new chapter in its program to explore the mysteries of the planet as it is a test of the agency’s mettle.

The last two spacecraft NASA sent to Mars failed, forcing the agency to curtail what had been a far more ambitious program of exploration.

”This mission is one of redemption,” said David Spencer, manager of the $297 million mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ”We had a couple of high-profile failures, but we’re bouncing back. This mission is going to be a success.”

If it isn’t, NASA could pay a stiff price.

”They might call off the next bunch of missions until the war on terrorism is over,” said Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University who has testified as an expert on NASA before Congress. ”We have to pay for security, and failing programs are a good source of money.”

Since well before Odyssey’s flawless launch April 7, members of the 100-person mission team have stressed how difficult it has been historically to send robotic explorers to Mars – a place many of them see as jinxed.

Fewer than one-third of the 30 missions launched toward the planet since 1960 have succeeded. Some crashed into the planet, others were lost en route.

The most recent failures were 1999’s back-to-back losses of the Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander spacecraft, which caused NASA to rip apart and rebuild its Mars program. A landing spacecraft that was to have accompanied the orbiting Odyssey was scrapped. Budgets on the robotic satellite were boosted, workers added and oversight increased.

”I hope we can give a message that America is still in business, and we can still do things that no other country can,” said Ed Weiler, head of NASA’s space science program.

At 7:26 p.m. PDT on Tuesday, as Odyssey nears the north pole of Mars, the spacecraft is scheduled to begin firing its engine. The engine should burn for 19.7 minutes to allow the probe to be captured into an elliptical orbit.

Ten minutes later, the probe will slip behind Mars and go silent.

”That will be nail-biting time,” Spencer said.

It should reappear 20 minutes later and within another half-hour, mission engineers should be able to determine whether the Lockheed Martin Astronautics-built spacecraft has begun to orbit the planet.

”It’s going to be either a real psychological boost for all of us or one more downer,” said Lou Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, a Pasadena-based space exploration advocacy group.

It was upon entering Mars’ orbit that Climate Orbiter was lost in September 1999. A mix-up of English and metric units used in calculating trajectory sent the spacecraft too close to Mars upon arrival, causing it to burn up in the atmosphere. Just three months later, Polar Lander plummeted to the surface, probably because a software error cut off its engines prematurely.

As Odyssey approaches Mars, engineers continue to fret over the spacecraft, named for ”2001: A Space Odyssey,” the movie written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Project members say Odyssey is among the most scrutinized missions ever launched by NASA.

”We’re looking at everything that could affect our success,” said Matt Landano, the Odyssey project manager. ”We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What are we missing?”’

The mission calls for Odyssey to initially orbit Mars once every 20 or so hours. That period will be gradually reduced as the spacecraft enters the atmosphere of Mars for a portion of each orbit. The drag of the tenuous, carbon-dioxide-rich shroud that encircles the planet will be used to further slow it in a fuel-saving process called aerobraking.

”The idea is to toe-dip your way in: feel the atmosphere, sense it and gradually work your way in,” said Bob Mase, the mission’s lead navigator.

Limited mapping operations should begin within days of arrival. But the aerobraking will last until late January, at which point Odyssey will whip around Mars once every two hours about 250 miles above the planet’s surface. It will then begin its science mapping work in earnest.

When Odyssey turns its three scientific instruments toward Mars, it will join another NASA satellite, the Global Surveyor, which is already at work.

Global Surveyor has mapped Mars since 1997, returning more than 78,000 images of the planet. Among them are high-resolution pictures that suggest water may have coursed across the surface of Mars in the recent geological past, raising the tantalizing possibility the planet harbors life.

Odyssey’s instruments should reveal in finer detail how that surface evolved.

One instrument – which suffered glitches after launch – is designed to assess the radiation risks that future human missions may encounter.

Data collected by the satellite will help scientists pick landing sites for future missions, as well as seek hot spots on the planet where warm springs might bubble to the surface.

”The most exciting things from Odyssey will be the things that we cannot predict,” Weiler said. ”That’s the beauty of Mars: It will surprise us.”

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