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2001: A Mars Odyssey (video)
April 05, 2001

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Elsewhere on the web

NASA’s Mars Exploration homepage

2001 Mars Odyssey - Tune in April 7 for a live video feed of the launch.

Mars Climate Orbiter

Mars Polar Lander


On Saturday, the next of NASA’s missions to Mars begins its odyssey toward the Red Planet. But with three of the last four Mars missions ending in disaster, will this one be a success?

The ScienCentral News video report at the right takes a look at the 2001 Mars Odyssey.

What went wrong?

Below are details on what went wrong during NASA’s recent Mars mishaps.

Mars Observer

The mission was to study the surface, atmosphere, interior and magnetic field of Mars. It was supposed to last one Martian year (in order to get observations throughout all four of Mars’ seasons), but NASA scientists lost communications with the spacecraft before it was even able to go into orbit around the planet.

The most probable cause was a rupture of the fuel pressurization side of the spacecraft’s propulsion system, resulting in a pressurized leak of both helium gas and liquid fuel under the spacecraft’s thermal blanket. Other reported possible causes are failure of the electrical power system; NTO tank over-pressurization and rupture due to pressurization regulator failure; and the accidental high-speed ejection of a NASA standard initiator.

But there is room for amends: the 2001 Odyssey hopes to complete at least one of Observer’s missions. It will carry the gamma ray spectrometer, which is designed to measure the abundance of elements (uranium, thorium, potassium, iron and silicon, for example) on the surface of Mars.

Mars Climate Orbiter

Mars Climate Orbiter was supposed to provide detailed information about the dust, water vapor, clouds, and atmospheric temperature on Mars, as well as information about the amount of carbon dioxide that is added and removed from the poles each Martian year.

In addition to collecting data, the Orbiter was to act as a relay station for five years, assisting in data transmission to and from the Mars Polar Lander. But the Climate Orbiter burned up after it was thrust too far into the planet’s atmosphere.

"The ’root cause’ of the loss of the spacecraft was the failed translation of English units into metric units in a segment of ground-based, navigation-related mission software," said Arthur Stephenson, chairman of the Mars Climate Orbiter Mission Failure Investigation Board. "The failure review board has identified other significant factors that allowed this error to be born, and then let it linger and propagate to the point where it resulted in a major error in our understanding of the spacecraft’s path as it approached Mars."

Mars Polar Lander

2001 Odyssey
image: Lockheed Martin
The Polar Lander was intended to help scientists piece together the planet’s climate history, most specifically whether Mars ever had any water on it. But the spacecraft was lost just twelve minutes before it was supposed to touch down on the surface.

No one is sure what went wrong. There has been some speculation that there were problems with the spacecraft’s three landing legs. One extremely controversial UPI report claimed that there was a known problem with the descent engine which mission managers hid before the launch. NASA vigorously denied that claim, and is still looking for the Polar Lander.

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