probe
Image: NASA

On April 7, NASA plans to launch Mars mission Odyssey, named after the book and movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." The unmanned orbital probe (right), part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, is supposed to measure the planet's radiation levels, as well as sample the mineral composition at the surface. Odyssey's gamma ray spectrometer (GRS) will allow the scientists to peek into the top few centimeters of Mars' crust. How much water or ice the crust contains is of particular interest to the researchers in part because the availability of water would make manned missions to Mars more feasible. "I'm not saying necessarily drinking water, but water has a lot of other uses," Ed Weiler, head of NASA's office of space science, said at a news briefing. "It's conveniently made of hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen is pretty good stuff to breathe; hydrogen is pretty good stuff to use as fuel."

Given that both the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander were lost in 1999, NASA has spent an extra $12 million dollars testing this new system to ensure that the mission will go smoothly. The Climate Orbiter burned up in the atmosphere, whereas the Polar Lander is believed to have crashed on the surface after a false signal caused its engines to shut off before landing. Soon after the spacecraft was lost, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) began looking at and enhancing images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which still orbits the planet. According to one account at Space.com, NIMA specialists may now have found the lost spacecraft, but the report remains unconfirmed.