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13-Apr-01 | Delta flight 284 – 2001 Mars Odyssey

2001 Mars Odyssey is on its way, thanks to a picture-perfect flight by Delta 284.

With a terminal count devoid of any major issues, and a weather report that could not have been sunnier, there was nothing to stand in the way of the three-stage model 7925-9.5 Delta’s launch in the first instantaneous window on Saturday morning, 7 April. Offical liftoff time was 11:02:21.860 a.m. EDT, a fraction ahead of the nominal window — an eager thumb on the Engine Start button, perhaps. Not that it mattered, as the Delta soared straight and true along its course to deploy the spacecraft, exactly as planned, a little over 31 minutes later. (As of 12 April, NASA is postponing Odyssey’s first TCM from 16 April to sometime in late May. Thanks to Delta’s exceedingly precise accuracy, spacecraft propellant will be conserved for use during and after arrival at Mars.)

Best of all, the twin on-board videorocs provided spectacular views of nearly all phases of the launch. Previous Delta launches, notably ACE and Stardust, have carried a videoroc, but Saturday’s launch returned easily the best pictures yet. Cloudless skies meant the aft-viewing camera had a clear view of the retreating Cape, including the neatly-framed, growing shadow of the rocket’s exhaust plume. The violence of staging did not disrupt transmission as it did during Stardust, resulting in a beautifully static-free shot from MECO through fairing jettison. At the same time, the forward-facing camera looked inside the fairing as it blasted away in an instant, revealing the solar panel and gold foil swaddling of Odyssey. Finally, thanks to a downlink most likely provided by a ground station in Fucino, Italy, we saw for the first time ever a truly amazing sight: the spin-up and separation of the third stage and payload from the second stage. Unfortunately the video signal was lost prior to third stage ignition, to the obvious (and vocal) disappointment of the folks in the control center.

Commentary: Whoever had the idea for the dual videorocs, be they at Boeing or NASA, deserves kudos for this launch. The video was so clean, and exciting to watch, that the major newscasts couldn’t help but replay the footage on the evening news. Even the local stations got on board, so to speak. Best of all, from Boeing’s standpoint at any rate, is the fact that the cameras raised the visibility of a workhorse launch vehicle that often toils in relative obscurity. More often than not, I noticed the newscasters mentioned the Delta rocket by name, frequently in the opening sentence of the item.

Additionally, Boeing engineer and launch commentator Marc Lavigne deserves a mention. Lavigne, who from what I understand fell into the commentator role due to his ability to read a telemetry strip chart like the back of his hand, only continues to improve in his play-by-play account of launch events. When you’re watching the flight on a stop-motion “streaming” webcast, sometimes the only way to know what’s going on is to listen to Marc. (By the way, for those interested in seeing the face behind the voice, check out Boeing’s new 2-minute promotional video, The Legacy Continues. [warning: 16Mb file] Lavigne is the most prominently featured person in the whole video — he’s the guy wearing the fish tie with his headset. We’re not sure who he knows in the video production department.) -ed.

Odyssey, the third orbiter in NASA’s Mars Surveyor program, contains three primary science instruments that will map the Martian surface in terms of mineralogy, morphology, and elemental composition, and measure the surface environment’s radiation levels. Among other benefits, these measurements will allow scientists to search for water and shallow buried ice, data that will come in handy for future human exploration of the Red Planet. Mars Odyssey is in a healthy state of cruise and has already travelled more than 1 million miles from Earth.


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