NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has successfully adjusted its orbital location to be in a better position to provide prompt confirmation of the August landing of the Curiosity rover.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft carrying Curiosity can send limited information directly to Earth as it enters Mars' atmosphere. Before the landing, Earth will set below the Martian horizon from the descending spacecraft's perspective, ending that direct route of communication. Odyssey will help to speed up the indirect communication process.
NASA reported during a July 16 news conference that Odyssey, which originally was planned to provide a near-real-time communication link with Curiosity, had entered safe mode July 11. This situation would have affected communication operations, but not the rover's landing. Without a repositioning maneuver, Odyssey would have arrived over the landing area about two minutes after Curiosity landed.
A spacecraft thruster burn Tuesday lasting about six seconds has nudged Odyssey about six minutes ahead in its orbit. Odyssey now is operating normally, and confirmation of Curiosity's landing is expected to reach Earth at about 10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5, as originally planned.
"Information we are receiving indicates the maneuver has been completed as planned," said Gaylon McSmith, Mars Odyssey project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif. "Odyssey has been working at Mars longer than any other spacecraft, so it is appropriate that it has a special role in supporting the newest arrival."
Two other Mars orbiters, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the European Space Agency's Mars Express, also will be in position to receive radio transmissions from MSL during its descent. However, they will be recording information for later playback. Only Odyssey can relay information immediately.
Odyssey arrived at Mars in 2001. In addition to its own scientific observations, it has served as a communications relay for NASA's Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and the Phoenix lander. Spirit and Phoenix are no longer operational. Odyssey and MRO will provide communication relays for Curiosity during the rover's two-year prime mission.
Odyssey and MSL, with its Curiosity rover, are managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The Odyssey spacecraft is operated by JPL and Lockheed Martin in Denver. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built Odyssey.