The United States returned to Mars tonight as NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey fired its main engine at 7:26 p.m. Pacific time and was captured into orbit around the red planet.
At 7:55 p.m. Pacific time, flight controllers at the Deep Space Network station in Goldstone, Calif., and Canberra, Australia, picked up the first radio signal from the spacecraft as it emerged from behind the planet Mars.
"Early information indicates everything went great," said Matt Landano, the Odyssey project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "The orbit insertion burn went off just as we planned and we will now begin the three-month long aerobraking phase."
Through tonight and the early morning hours tomorrow, the flight team will be analyzing the information they are receiving from Odyssey. This will help them evaluate the health and status of the spacecraft and determine the precise orbit geometry.
Tonight's firing of the main engine slowed the spacecraft's speed and allowed it to be captured by Mars' gravity into an egg-shaped elliptical orbit around the planet. In the weeks and months ahead, the spacecraft will repeatedly brush against the top of the atmosphere in a process called aerobraking. By using atmospheric drag on the spacecraft, flight controllers will reduce the long, highly elliptical orbit into a shorter, 2-hour circular orbit of approximately 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) altitude for the mission's science data collection.
"Orbit insertion is our single most critical event during the mission, and we are glad it's behind us," said David A. Spencer, Odyssey's mission manager at JPL. "But we cannot rest on our laurels. The aerobraking phase will be a demanding, around-the-clock operation, and it requires the flight team to react as the atmosphere of Mars changes."
The aerobraking phase is scheduled to begin on Friday, October 26.
JPL manages the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Principal investigators at Arizona State University in Tempe, the University of Arizona in Tucson, and NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, operate the science instruments. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, Colo., is the prime contractor for the project, and developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., will provide aerobraking support to JPL's navigation team during mission operations.