Skip to main content

NASA’s Odyssey orbiter celebrates 20 years of mapping Mars

NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft passes above Mars' south pole in this artist's concept illustration. The spacecraft launched 20 years ago on April 7, 2001.
NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft passes above Mars’ south pole in this artist’s concept illustration. The spacecraft launched 20 years ago on April 7, 2001. NASA/JPL

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Mars since 2002. That makes it the longest-lived spacecraft sent to Mars, and it continues its work observing the Martian surface.

One of Odyssey’s major discoveries was detecting subsurface ice on Mars. It detected ice below the shallow surface of the planet, and these readings were later confirmed by the Phoenix lander.

“Before Odyssey, we didn’t know where this water was stored on the planet,” said Project Scientist Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads the Odyssey mission, in a statement. “We detected it for the first time from orbit and later confirmed it was there using the Phoenix lander.”

Locating ice on Mars is pivotal for two reasons: Firstly, to understand the history of water on the planet and therefore if it could once have supported life, and secondly, to enable future crewed missions to the planet.

Other achievements Odyssey has been a part of include unraveling the composition of Mars, with a global map made using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument. Not only did this create a map of the surface, but it also gave information about what the surface was composed of such as rock, sand, or dust.

The orbiter data has also been used to help select landing sites for Mars missions. THEMIS has identified hazards like boulders to be avoided, and its ice maps could be used to pin down a landing site for an eventual crewed mission.

“In the past 40 years Mars has gone from a red dot in the sky to a world we have come to know almost as well as our own,” said Philip Christensen, THEMIS lead at Arizona State University, in a statement. “Mars Odyssey and THEMIS have played a major role in that transformation and it has been a great privilege to have been part of the exploration of Mars.”

Odyssey is still in operation and has enough propellant to last until 2025. It is expected to continue its work observing the planet’s surface.

“Mars is a very dynamic and changing place, so we hope that THEMIS and Odyssey will continue to observe the planet for many more years to come,” said Christensen. “Exploration always has surprises, so even after 20 years we never really know what to expect in each image we take.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Perseverance rover finds evidence of an ancient river on Mars
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover captured this mosaic of a hill nicknamed “Pinestand.” Scientists think the tall sedimentary layers stacked on top of one another here could have been formed by a deep, fast-moving river.

The Perseverance rover has been exploring Mars's Jezero Crater as part of its mission to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars. The history of water is key in the search for life, and it is currently thought that Mars lost its water around 4 million years ago. Now, the rover has identified evidence of what was once one of the deepest and fast-flowing rivers yet discovered on the planet.

The rover captured a series of hundreds of images using its Mastcam-Z instrument, which were put together into this mosaic showing a hill structure called Pinestand. In the image, you can see the many layers left behind by the flowing river, which were formed by deposits of sediment.

Read more
NASA readies for its second all-private mission to ISS
Axiom Space's Ax-2 crew.

NASA, in partnership with Axiom Space and SpaceX, is making final preparations for the second all-private mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The four Ax-2 crewmembers will travel to the station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launched by a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Read more
Watch a replica of NASA’s Mars helicopter take flight on Earth
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

Visitors to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California at the weekend got to see a life-sized replica of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter take flight.

Ingenuity made history in April 2021 when it became the first aircraft to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. It’s since gone on to complete more than 50 Mars flights and has even assisted NASA’s ground-based Perseverance rover by taking aerial images to help the JPL team plan safe and efficient routes across the Martian surface.

Read more