Mission Extended for NASA's Oldest Mars Spycraft
An artist's rendition of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft in orbit above Mars.
Credit: NASA

A veteran Mars probe received a two-year mission extension though Sept. 2010 to keep watch over the red planet.

NASA's Mars Odyssey represents the longest-serving of six spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, after first reaching the planet in 2001. Its new extended mission requires changing orbit to gain a better vantage point for doing infrared mapping of Martian minerals.

The first year of the two-year extended mission carries a price tag of $11 million through Sept. 2009, said Guy Webster, NASA spokesperson at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

An orbital adjustment should allow Odyssey to look down at sites in mid-afternoon rather than late afternoon. The spacecraft's thermal camera could then better detect infrared radiation from warmer rocks to better identify them.

"This will allow us to do much more sensitive detection and mapping of minerals," said Jeffrey Plaut, a Mars Odyssey scientist at JPL.

However, the shift to mid-afternoon is also expected to halt usage of an instrument in Odyssey's Gamma Ray Spectrometer. The gamma ray detector requires the later-hour orbit to avoid overheating a critical component.

Odyssey began its course change by firing up its thrusters for almost six minutes on Sept. 30, the last day of its second two-year extension.

"This was our biggest maneuver since 2002, and it went well," said Gaylon McSmith, Odyssey mission manager at JPL.? "The spacecraft is in good health. The propellant supply is adequate for operating through at least 2015."

The spacecraft's orbit is synchronized with the sun, so that local solar time on Mars has been about 5 p.m. wherever Odyssey flew over from the north pole to south pole. On the flipside, local time has been roughly 5 a.m. as the spacecraft flew from south to north.

The time should gradually change to somewhere between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. over the next year or so, as Odyssey's overhead pass gets earlier by about 20 seconds per day.

Odyssey's overall mission so far has helped detect large quantities of water-ice near the surface in the higher latitudes of Mars, which led to NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission. The spacecraft helped keep an eye on Phoenix as the lander descended to the surface, and continues to relay information from Phoenix back to Earth.