Friday, December 17, 2010

NASA probe could give Energizer Bunny a run for its money

Break out the freeze dried champagne and astronaut ice cream for NASA's Mars mission. Launched in 2001, NASA's Mars Odyssey broke the record for longest serving spacecraft on the Red Planet. The probe began its 3,340th day in Martian orbit at 8:55 p.m. EST on Wednesday to break the record set by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which orbited Mars from 1997 to 2006:

Odyssey's longevity enables continued science, including the monitoring of seasonal changes on Mars from year to year and the most detailed maps ever made of most of the planet. In 2002, the spacecraft detected hydrogen just below the surface throughout Mars' high-latitude regions. The deduction that the hydrogen is in frozen water prompted NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which confirmed the theory in 2008. Odyssey also carried the first experiment sent to Mars specifically to prepare for human missions, and found radiation levels around the planet from solar flares and cosmic rays are two to three times higher than around Earth.

Odyssey also has served as a communication relay, handling most of the data sent home by Phoenix and NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Odyssey became the middle link for continuous observation of Martian weather by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Odyssey will support the 2012 landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and surface operations of that mission. MSL will assess whether its landing area has had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life and preserving evidence about whether life has existed there. The rover will carry the largest, most advanced set of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface.

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