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Ivelisse Gilman
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RELEASE NO. 01-107

For Release:   October 26, 2001

NASA Langley helps spacecraft surf Martian atmosphere

The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft fired its main engines this week and successfully put itself into orbit around the red planet. NASA flight controllers report that the spacecraft is in excellent health and is in a looping orbit around Mars.

Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center are ready for the next critical phase in the Mars Odyssey mission. Starting on Friday, October 26, and in the weeks and months ahead, Langley’s role will be to help the spacecraft literally surf the waves of the Martian atmosphere in a process called aerobraking, which will reduce the long elliptical orbit into a shorter, 2-hour circular orbit of approximately 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) altitude. This will place the spacecraft in a lower orbit where it will make its scientific observations.

The Langley Odyssey team will support the Jet Propulsion Laboratory by monitoring the aerodynamics and the heating of the spacecraft as it passes through the thin atmosphere of Mars. One of Langley’s jobs will be to figure out how deep the orbiter should go on each pass. If the passes are too deep, the solar panels could burn up; if the passes are too shallow, the mission could end up in a useless orbit.

"These are very challenging and exciting missions," said Dick Powell, Langley technical lead for Mars Odyssey. "There are many uncertainties about Mars. The atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide as opposed to Earth’s atmosphere that is primarily nitrogen. So we have to figure out a way to modify all our computational tools to apply to these vehicles. Also, there is no infrastructure, no global positioning satellites, no meteorological satellites, so we have to allow a great deal of margin in these spacecraft to handle the unknown."

Dick Powell leads a group of 18 Langley and George Washington University researchers who will work around the clock to monitor the aerobraking phase of the Odyssey mission.

Mars Odyssey is designed to detect water and shallow buried ice. The orbiter will also collect data on the radiation environment to help assess potential risks to any future human missions.

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