November 1, 2001

Odyssey Satellite Orbits, Images Martian Surface

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Last Tuesday night, to the relief of NASA scientists, the Mars Odyssey Satellite spacecraft entered orbit around Mars and began taking high-resolution and thermal photographs of the planet’s surface.

This mission had special meaning for those astronomers and scientists working here in Cornell University’s Space Sciences Building.

“We’re thrilled,” said Prof. Steven Squyres, astronomy, who is leading the project at Cornell. “It’s pretty nice to have that [in orbit].”

In addition to the new medical college based in Qatar and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Cornell will soon have a new distance learning location which is literally out of this world.

In 2003, an international team of scientists lead by Squyres will begin the Cornell sponsored NASA Rover missions, which will use sophisticated mapping technology developed by Squyres called the Athena science package. These missions will enable scientists to discover areas of the Martian surface that may contain important elements and water.

The Odyssey mission is the first piece of this interplanetary telecommunication network.

Once the Rovers are in place on the Martian surface, the Odyssey will transmit photographs directly to the Space Sciences Building, illustrating Cornell’s direct link to this project.

“I’ve been invested in this project since 1986,” Squyres said.

Sponsored by the University of Arizona, the Odyssey carries the gamma ray spectrometer (GRS) which, “fundamentally looks at the distribution of elements, [on mars],” according to Squyres. Odyssey also carries THEMIS (thermal emission imaging system) which uses thermal technology to discover minerals scientists wish to study.

“The thing that intrigues me the most is [THEMIS] is also able to see ice below the surface [of Mars],” Squyres said.

It is these capabilities that make the Odyssey mission so important for researchers, and why if the mission had failed, the Rover missions would be in serious peril similar to the fate of the Mars Observer in the mid 1980s.

The 1980’s Mars Observer carried seven instruments to explore Mars. However, three days before it was scheduled to enter the atmosphere of Mars, the Observer was lost.

If the Odyssey met a similar fate, the Rover missions would have no satellite to transport information from, hampering the mission indefinitely.

“[The Observer mission] was a crushing disappointment,” Squyres said.

Squyres says he feels a sense of relief now that the Odyssey is safely in orbit and all of his and his department’s hard work has and will pay off now and during the later missions.

This work included waiting for five years while different components of the network went into orbit without the GRS. In 1996, the first five instruments were launched into orbit and another in 1998.

“We’re the last of them,” he said. This is the seventh and final piece that will allow Cornell faculty and students to benefit from the new technology.

Amena Siddiqi grad is writing her doctoral dissertation using the information on water (in the form of ice) from the Odyssey. She notes how the mission’s success will allow her to complete her thesis with the most accurate data.

“My thesis will be based on the data. It’s great that the mission is successful,” Siddiqi said.

Squyres feels that Siddiqi’s research will also find and the latest information to help answer questions that still puzzle NASA and Cornell researchers. “Water on Mars is one of the big questions [in astronomy]. NASA is just as excited as we are to have this technology,” Squyres said.

Cornell’s administration is just as pleased that the University will have the first access to the latest academic technology is its administration who note that the mission is a grand success for all instructors and students alike.

“It’s really exciting. This is an example for students and faculty of having the opportunity to access the cutting edge of discovery,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president of University relations.

Dullea notes how Cornell will continuously update the ever-changing development of this technology while Squyres and his team continuously update the information.

“When we have such wonderful people working on [the project] it is really a treat to work with [the researchers],” Dullea added.

Squyres noted that as the NASA missions continue, they will increase the amount of information that can possibly be gathered about the Red Planet will also grow beyond the scope of their current knowledge.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” he said.

The NASA Rover mission launches are planned for May and June of 2003 and landings on Mars are scheduled for Jan. 4 and 5 of 2004. These missions are sponsored by Cornell and the Jet propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Archived article by Carlos Perkins