10 years ago today, on April 7, 2001, NASA launched the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter into the sky. Its name alluding to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's seminal story of space exploration, the Odyssey was equipped with spectrometers and electronic imaging systems in hopes of finding evidence of water or volcanic activity on Mars. Last December, after over 3,300 days of continuous operation, it became the longest serving spacecraft investigating the Red Planet.
The Odyssey reached Mars' orbit in October, 2001, nearly half a year after it was launched. By May of the next year, its spectrometer had detected significant amounts of hydrogen, signaling that ice deposits were likely located beneath the Martian surface. This hypothesis was confirmed by the Mars Phoenix lander in 2008.
In addition to its early imaging work, the Odyssey has been an essential communication link to subsequent Mars missions. It has relayed 95% of data from the Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers back to Earth, and scientists are relying on its imaging data to find landing sites for future missions, like the next-generation Curiosity rover.
Mars has always occupied a special place in our imaginations, and now, after having planted our flag on the Moon, it's essentially the next (and for the foreseeable future the last) frontier for man to explore. And while we likely still have a good deal of time before we make that voyage, spacecrafts like the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter are essential to keeping it in our sights. [NASA]