Mars Global Surveyor Mission

NASA launched the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on November 7, 1996, using a Delta II expendable launch vehicle. The safe arrival of this robot spacecraft at Mars on September 12, 1997, represented the first successful mission to the Red Planet in two decades. MGS was designed as a rapid, low-cost recovery of the lost Mars Observer (MO) spacecraft and its major scientific mission objectives.

After a year and a half of trimming its orbit from a looping ellipse to a circular track around the planet, the spacecraft began its primary mapping mission in March 1999. Using a high-resolution camera, the MGS spacecraft observed the planet from a low-altitude, nearly polar orbit over the course of one complete Martian year, the equivalent of nearly two Earth years. Completing its primary mission on January 31, 2001, the spacecraft entered an extended mission phase. NASA lost contact with the Mars Global Surveyor in November 2006. This spacecraft had operated longer at Mars than any other spacecraft in history and for more than four times as long as the prime mission originally planned.

The MGS science instruments included a high-resolution camera, a thermal emission spectrometer, a laser altimeter, and a magnetometer/ electron reflectometer. With these instruments, the spacecraft successfully studied the entire Martian surface, atmosphere, and interior, returning an enormous amount of valuable scientific data in the process. Among the key scientific findings of this mission are high-resolution images of gullies and debris flow features that suggest there may be current sources of liquid water, similar to an aquifer, at or near the surface of the planet.

Magnetometer readings indicate the Martian magnetic field is not globally generated in the planet's core but appears to be localized in particular areas of the crust. Data from the spacecraft's laser altimeter have provided the first three-dimensional views of the northern ice cap on Mars. Finally, new temperature data and close-up images of the Martian moon, Phobos, suggest that its surface consists of a powdery material at least 1 meter thick—most likely the result of millions of years of meteor-oid impacts.

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft took this high-resolution image of the north wall of a small crater located in the southwestern quarter of Newton Crater— a major surface feature on Mars. Scientists hypothesize that Newton Crater, a large basin about 178 miles (287 km) across, was probably formed by an asteroid impact more than three billion years ago. The small crater's north wall has many narrow gullies eroded into it. To some scientists, the presence of these gullies suggests that water and debris once flowed in ancient times on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL/ Malin Space Science Systems)

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft took this high-resolution image of the north wall of a small crater located in the southwestern quarter of Newton Crater— a major surface feature on Mars. Scientists hypothesize that Newton Crater, a large basin about 178 miles (287 km) across, was probably formed by an asteroid impact more than three billion years ago. The small crater's north wall has many narrow gullies eroded into it. To some scientists, the presence of these gullies suggests that water and debris once flowed in ancient times on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL/ Malin Space Science Systems)

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