December 13, 2010 — By the middle of this week, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter will have worked longer at Mars than any other spacecraft in history.
Odyssey entered orbit around Mars on October 24, 2001. On December 15, the 3,340th day since that arrival, it will pass the Martian career longevity record set by its predecessor, Mars Global Surveyor, which operated in orbit from September 11, 1997, to November 2, 2006.
Odyssey made its most famous discovery — evidence for copious water ice just below the dry surface of Mars — during its first few months, and it finished its radiation-safety check for future astronauts before the end of its prime mission in 2004. The bonus years of extended missions since then have enabled many accomplishments that would not have been possible otherwise.
"The extra years have allowed us to build up the highest-resolution maps covering virtually the entire planet," said Odyssey Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The maps are assemblages of images from the orbiter's Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera, provided and operated by Arizona State University. To mark the approach to the Mars longevity record, the camera team and NASA prepared a slide show of remarkable images, posted here.
The orbiter's longevity has given Odyssey scientists the opportunity to monitor seasonal changes on Mars year-to-year, such as the cycle of carbon dioxide freezing out of the atmosphere in Polar Regions during each hemisphere's winter. "It is remarkable how consistent the patterns have been from year to year, and that's a comparison that wouldn't have been possible without our mission extensions," Plaut said.
Odyssey's performance has boosted benefits from other missions, too. When NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, far exceeded their own expected lifetimes, Odyssey remained available as the rover's primary communication relay. Nearly all the science data from the rovers and NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has reached Earth via Odyssey relay. Odyssey also became the middle segment of continuous observation of Martian weather by a series of NASA orbiters: Mars Global Surveyor, Odyssey, and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began its science mission in late 2006.
NASA has planned future work for Odyssey, in addition to having the orbiter continue its own science and its relay service for the Mars Exploration Rover mission. If required, controllers will adjust Odyssey's orbit so the spacecraft is in a favorable position for a communication relay role during the August 2012 landing of NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity.
A continuing partnership between JPL and Lockheed Martin Space Systems operates Odyssey.
Sand dunes shaped like blue-black flames lie next to a central hill within an unnamed, 120-kilometer-wide (75-mile-wide) crater in eastern Arabia on Mars. False colors depict the nature of the ground surface: Areas in bluish tints have more fine sand at the surface, while redder tints indicate harder sediments and outcrops of rock. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
Although it is 45 kilometers (28 miles) wide, countless layers of ice and dust have all but buried Udzha Crater. Udzha lies near the edge of the northern polar cap, and only the topmost edges of its crater rim rise above the polar deposits to hint at its circular shape. The image was taken by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter and posted in a special December 2010 set marking the occasion of Odyssey becoming the longest-working Mars spacecraft in history. The pictured location on Mars is 81.8 degrees north latitude, 77.2 degrees east longitude.