On April 7, 2001, the Mars Odyssey Orbiter took off from Cape Canaveral, FL, onboard a Boeing Delta 7925 rocket. It traveled for approximately six months before positioning itself into an initial elliptical capture orbit. After a propulsive maneuver into a 25-hour capture orbit, aerocapture was used over the course of 76 days to achieve the two-hour science orbit. Aerocapture involves using the Mars atmosphere to slow down and attain orbit.
The orbiter's final operational altitude is about 250 miles (400 km) above Mars in a sun-synchronous polar orbit. In the following two years, the orbiter maps the planet's surface and takes measurements about radiation and elemental composition.
The Mars orbiter is just one in a series of orbiters, rovers and surveyors that NASA plans to launch toward Mars in an effort to learn as much as possible about the planet before sending a human mission there. In the next decade, the U.S. space agency will launch at least one Mars exploration spacecraft in every odd numbered year.
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