On February 19, 2002, the satellite Mars Odyssey switched on its scientific instruments and began exploring the planet for which it’s named. Though its original mission was only designed to last about two years, it is still chugging along as it celebrates its 16th anniversary of revealing secrets about Mars.
The orbiter’s biggest accomplishment in its time exploring the red planet has been the massive amount of evidence it has discovered for water on Mars. Just in its initial two-year mission, the satellite’s Gamma Ray Spectrometer discovered huge quantities of water all over the planet, often buried just below the surface.
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In the 14 years since, Mars Odyssey has mapped the planet extensively, revealing just how much water once shaped the world’s terrain. It has spotted possible river deltas, dried lake beds, and valleys that were cut by the flow of water over millions of years. It also serves as a vital communications relay for data collected by NASA’s Martian rovers, one of which just celebrated its own milestone.
But those are just some of the discoveries it has made possible. Consider the NASA video above from 2010, in which California middle school students used the satellite’s camera to discover a previously unknown cave. That’s part of what’s so cool about Odyssey’s extended mission: It’s become vital to NASA’s larger public outreach and education about just what’s happening on our planetary neighbor.
Though Odyssey began its mission around Mars in February 2002, the orbiter blasted off from Cape Canaveral in April 2001, hence the Space Odyssey-inspired name. NASA rejected the name amid copyright concerns before actually emailing Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka to get permission to use the name. The octogenarian author enthusiastically agreed, and in doing so connected perhaps his most famous work with one of the most impressive scientific legacies of any satellite in the solar system.
Odyssey broke the record for longest-serving satellite around Mars in 2010, at which point NASA scientists estimated it had enough fuel to keep going until 2016. The current estimate is now up to 2025, so there’s plenty more for this stalwart of Martian exploration to do before it at last shuts off to rest.