NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey snaps first picture of Red Planet

Wednesday, October 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) _ NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey snapped its first picture of Mars on Tuesday, one week after the spacecraft safely arrived in orbit around the Red Planet.

The test image, slated for release later this week, shows a 1,300-mile-wide swath of the planet's south pole, including portions of its frozen cap of water and carbon dioxide ice, scientists said.

``We haven't had much time to think about what it means scientifically, we have been so busy saying how cool it looks,'' said Philip Christensen of Arizona State University at Tempe. Christensen is the scientist in charge of the instrument, the thermal emission imaging spectrometer _ or THEMIS _ that captured the image.

The thermal infrared picture shows varying temperatures on Mars' surface, with sharp differences between areas warmed by the sun and those plunged into frigid darkness.

In regions illuminated by the sun, the surface temperature hovered at the freezing point; in the dark, it plummeted to minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit.

The image, which has a resolution of about 4 miles per picture element, or pixel, was made while the unmanned Odyssey satellite was roughly 17,000 miles from Mars as it followed an elliptical path around the planet. By February, the robotic spacecraft will have settled into a circular mapping orbit just 250 miles above the surface.

Greg Mehall, the THEMIS mission manager at Arizona State, said the instrument will snap its next thermal image then. Scientists will use THEMIS to detect and map minerals across Mars, as well as seek out the thermal signature of hot springs that might bubble up to the surface. It will also keep tabs on the atmosphere of Mars, monitoring the global dust storms that occasionally envelop the planet.

The $297 million Odyssey mission will also remotely prospect for chemicals, hunt down frozen stores of water and, later, serve as a communications relay satellite for future Mars spacecraft.