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NASA poised for 2001 Mars Odyssey

A drawing of NASA's Mars Odyssey Orbiter
A drawing of NASA's Mars Odyssey Orbiter  

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'Thousands of ancient Yellowstones'

Orbiter will be 'radio' active

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(CNN) -- NASA scientists on Monday expressed confidence in a powerful new orbiter scheduled to become the first spacecraft to visit the red planet since two probe disasters in 1999.

The $300 million satellite will search for water, map the surface and measure radiation levels, observations that could provide clues about possible martian life and prove instrumental for future human visitors.

The 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter should launch on April 7 and arrive at Mars on October 20. It will go into space aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

"Mars continues to surprise us at every turn. We expect Odyssey to remove some of the uncertainties and help us plan where we must go with future missions," said Ed Weiler, NASA deputy administrator.

Jim Garvin, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said the spacecraft's instruments will help identify scientifically significant places where future rovers and landers could set down on Mars.

'Thousands of ancient Yellowstones'

"There are many interesting places to go. We may have thousands of ancient Yellowstones on Mars," said Mars program scientist Ed Garvin, referring to possible mineral-rich springs.

The Mars Global Surveyor, a spacecraft that has been orbiting Mars since 1997, has snapped high-resolution pictures of deep gullies, layered terrain and other features that suggest water flooded the planet billions of years ago and continues to seep to the surface today.

Surveyor's camera can spot details as small as three meters. The camera onboard Odyssey cannot focus as well, but it will have the ability to "see" much more than physical topography.

The newer probe will serve as a de facto geologist, carrying instruments like a thermal-emission imaging system and a gamma ray spectrometer to map the mineral and chemical makeup of Mars.

The latter device will allow scientists to peer into the shallow subsurface of Mars to measure elements including hydrogen.

Because hydrogen is probably present in the form of water ice, the spectrometer should measure permanent ground ice and how it changes with the seasons, NASA said.

"For the first time at Mars, we will have a spacecraft that is equipped to find evidence for present near-surface water," mission project scientist Steve Saunders said in a statement.

Orbiter will be 'radio' active

One onboard experiment will monitor martian radiation levels, checking for possible hazards to future astronauts.

Besides conducting scientific studies, the Odyssey orbiter should serve as a radio communications relay for future U.S. and international landers, including twin rovers that NASA plans to launch in 2003.

The Odyssey is NASA's first mission to Mars since it lost an orbiter and lander less than two years ago. The Mars Climate Orbiter presumably burned up in the martian atmosphere in September 1999 because propulsion engineers failed to convert English and metric units.

Less than three months later, its sibling spacecraft the Mars Polar Lander likely crashed because a software flaw shut off the descent engines prematurely, sending it on a fatal plunge into the red planet.

NASA scaled back its Mars program after the mishaps, canceling numerous missions over the next decade.

In addition to the 2001 orbiter and twin 2003 rovers, the agency plans to send a more powerful orbiter in 2005, a long-range mobile laboratory in 2007 and a new line of "scout" missions that could involve scientific balloons or miniature landers. The first could arrive as early as 2007.

The first probe that will bring back samples of martian soil or rock could launch from Earth as soon as 2011, NASA said.

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2001 Mars Odyssey
2001 Mars Odyssey Webcam

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