Just a few days ago, we posted about possibly salty water flows on Mars. Of note, the NASA press release noted, moisture is likely more prevalent in the morning and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter does most observations in the afternoon, local time. That’s too bad, we thought. But wait! It turns out that NASA Mars Odyssey spacecraft is going to change its orbit to get a better look.
It’s going to take nearly two years for NASA to maneuver the long-running Odyssey to the right spot, but at that point mission managers expect the spacecraft still has another decade of observations ahead of it based on current fuel consumption. That’s great considering that the spacecraft has been beaming back images since 2001!
Odyssey will be the first spacecraft to do dedicated morning observations of the planet since any NASA orbiter of the 1970s, which dates observations back to the Viking era (except for a few glimpses by European Space Agency spacecraft and previous NASA orbiters). Advances in imaging mean we will get a far clearer view of the ground than ever before.
“The change will enable observation of changing ground temperatures after sunrise and after sunset in thousands of places on Mars,” NASA stated. “Those observations could yield insight about the composition of the ground and about temperature-driven processes, such as warm-season flows observed on some slopes, and geysers fed by spring thawing of carbon-dioxide ice near Mars’ poles.”
The first maneuver took place Tuesday (Feb. 11) when a brief firing of Odyssey’s engines got the spacecraft pushing faster for an orbital shift. It will drift in that direction until November 2015, when controllers will do another maneuver to keep it in a stable location.
Right now, Odyssey is in a near-polar orbit that keeps local daylight at the same time below it. There have been a few changes to the timing over its dozen years of operation:
“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to find when we get to an orbit where we see the morning just after sunrise,” stated Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, who is THEMIS principal investigator and the person who suggested the move. “We can look for seasonal differences. Are fogs more common in winter or spring? We will look systematically. We will observe clouds in visible light and check the temperature of the ground in infrared.”
“We know that in places, carbon dioxide frost forms overnight,” he added. “And then it sublimates immediately after sunrise. What would this process look like in action? How would it behave? We’ve never observed this kind of phenomenon directly.”