By Lori Stiles

Like an answer to a prayer, NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft slipped into
orbit around the red planet last night.

University of Arizona space scientists and students, their families and
friends, and some of the taxpaying public gathered at the Lunar and
Planetary Laboratory to see if Odyssey’s main engine would fire to slow
the spacecraft for capture into martian orbit.

Unofficially dubbed “Arizona Orbiter” for all the Arizona-built science
gear it carries, the spacecraft did not disappoint. There was no flyby
or crash landing.

At 8 p.m., what had been a lively program highlighting Mars exploration
— and UA scientists and students can boast a big role in that
enterprise — escalated into a champagne cork-popping party.

“Out of the delivery room and into the nursery,” Steve Bougher saluted
Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) team leader Bill Boynton.

Boynton and his team of researchers and students built the GRS at the UA.
It will for the first time map the amount and distribution of elements
that make up the martian surface, including elements that indicate water,
past or present.

Bougher, an LPL associate research scientist, and his graduate student,
Paul Withers, this weekend begin around-the-clock shifts at their UA
offices as part of the team working to “aerobrake” Odyssey into a
circular orbit by mid-January. Aerobraking is a technique that uses the
drag of Mars’ atmosphere to slow the orbiter, smoothing its elliptical
path into a circular one required for doing science. Aerobraking is the
next important phase of the mission.

NASA missions have been extremely important to the state of Arizona and
its universities, Boynton said: The missions pump money into the economy,
generate national publicity that attracts good students and high-tech
industry to the state, and provide unique educational opportunities for
undergraduate and graduate students.

Few other universities in the nation offer undergraduate and graduate
students opportunities to build and work on real space experiments as
UA does, Boynton said. Often those students after graduation stay
in Arizona as part of the high-salaried workforce, contributing
significantly to the state’s economy.

The state and the nation get their money’s worth out of NASA missions —
even those that fail — in terms of technological training opportunities
for students, Boynton added.

Scientists led by Arizona State University’s Philip R. Christensen and
NASA Johnson Space Center scientists, respectively, have a thermal
emission experiment and a radiation environment experiment on Odyssey.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, Calif., manages the mission
for NASA.