THEMIS has sent back more than 1 million images since it began circling Mars. The images and maps it’s produced highlight the presence of hazards, such as topographic features and boulders, but they also help ensure the safety of future astronauts by showing the location of resources such as water ice. This aids the Mars science community and NASA in deciding where to send landers and rovers – including the Perseverance rover, which touched down on Feb. 18, 2021.
Routine Calls Home
From early on, Odyssey has served as a long-distance call center for NASA’s rovers and landers, sending their data back to Earth as part of the Mars Relay Network. The idea of Mars relay goes back to the 1970’s, when the two Viking landers sent science data and images through an orbiter back to Earth. An orbiter can carry radios or antennas capable of sending back more data than a surface spacecraft. But Odyssey made the process routine when it began conveying data to and from NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
“When the twin rovers landed, the success of relaying data using UHF frequency was a gamechanger,” said Chris Potts of JPL, Odyssey’s mission manager.
Each day, the rovers could go somewhere new and send fresh images back to Earth. Through a relay like Odyssey, scientists got more data sooner, while the public got more Mars images to be excited over. Odyssey has supported over 18,000 relay sessions. These days, it shares the communications task with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN, along with the ESA (European Space Agency) Trace Gas Orbiter.
Odyssey has done such a thorough job of studying the Martian surface that scientists have started turning its THEMIS camera to capture unique views of Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos. As with the Martian surface, studying each moon’s thermophysics helps scientists determine the properties of materials on their surfaces. Such information can offer glimmers into their past: It’s unclear whether the moons are captured asteroids or chunks of Mars, blasted off the surface by an ancient impact.
Future missions, like the Japanese Space Agency’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) spacecraft, will seek to land on these moons. In the distant future, missions might even create bases on them for astronauts. And if they do, they’ll rely on data from an orbiter that began its odyssey at the start of the millennium.
THEMIS was built and is operated by Arizona State University in Tempe. Odyssey’s Gamma Ray Spectrometer was provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Russian Space Research Institute. The prime contractor for the Odyssey project, Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena.
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