NASA Moves Longest-Serving Mars Spacecraft for New Observations

NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft has tweaked its orbit to help scientists make the first systematic observations of how morning fogs, clouds and surface frost develop in different seasons on the Red Planet.

The maneuver took place Tuesday, Feb. 11. Odyssey team engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, designed the gentle move to accelerate Odyssey’s drift toward a morning-daylight orbit. The desired change will occur gradually until the intended orbit geometry is reached in November 2015 and another maneuver halts the drift.

The change will enable observation of changing ground temperatures after sunrise and after sunset in thousands of places on Mars. Those observations could yield insight about the composition of the ground and about temperature-driven processes, such as warm-season flows observed on some slopes, and geysers fed by spring thawing of carbon-dioxide ice near Mars’ poles.

“We’re teaching an old spacecraft new tricks,” said Odyssey Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of JPL. “Odyssey will be in position to see Mars in a different light than ever before.”

Neither Odyssey, nor any other NASA Mars orbiter since the 1970s, has flown an orbital pattern with a view of the ground in morning daylight. Earlier NASA orbiters and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter have provided some tantalizing views of morning mists on Mars, but have concentrated on afternoon observation times when views of the surface are less hazy.

Odyssey was launched in 2001 and began its science mission 12 years ago this month. It is the longest-working spacecraft ever sent to Mars.

No NASA Mars orbiter has been in a position to observe morning daylight on Mars since the twin Viking orbiters of the 1970s. This image, taken by Viking Orbiter 1 on Aug. 17, 1976, shows water-ice clouds in the Valles Marineris area of equatorial Mars during local morning time. North is to the upper left, and the scene is about 600 miles (about 1,000 kilometers) across. Image Credit: NASA/JPL.

No NASA Mars orbiter has been in a position to observe morning daylight on Mars since the twin Viking orbiters of the 1970s. This image, taken by Viking Orbiter 1 on Aug. 17, 1976, shows water-ice clouds in the Valles Marineris area of equatorial Mars during local morning time. North is to the upper left, and the scene is about 600 miles (about 1,000 kilometers) across. Image Credit: NASA/JPL.

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