March 21, 2023

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Scientists solve the mystery of the missing Mars fuel

For nearly two years, NASA engineers were concerned that the Mars Odyssey’s fuel supply was running low, Which brings a tragic end to the precious spacecraft. But as it turns out, they miscalculated what was left in the orbiter’s gas tank and that it was OK to stick around for another two years, according to NASA.

Mars Odyssey has been orbiting the Red Planet for more than two decades, traversing the equivalent of 1.37 billion miles (2.21 billion kilometers) into space. When it was launched in 2001, the orbiter had 500 pounds (225.3 kilograms) of hydrazine propellant to power it through its orbit. Trips about Mars. However, what Odyssey doesn’t do be it fuel gauge, making it difficult for mission controllers To determine Exactly how much fuel is in orbit left in her locker.

In order to check the orbiter’s fuel supply, the team behind the mission will heat up the spacecraft’s two fuel tanks and see how long it takes for them to reach a certain temperature. “As with a teapot, an almost empty fuel tank will heat up faster than a full tank,” NASA writes. It’s not perfect, but it still gives Mission Control a good estimate of how much gas is left in the tank, so to speak.

In the summer of 2021, fuel estimates seemed to indicate that the Odyssey was running low with about 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of propellant remaining. Later in January 2022, the team’s calculations showed that there was only 6 pounds (2.8 kilograms) of hydrazine left, according to NASA. That means the mission will run out of fuel in less than a year, sooner than the team expected.

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Odyssey took this image of a Martian sand dune in 2006.
picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

The expedition engineers were at a loss; Either the spacecraft was leaking fuel or their calculations were simply off. They spent months trying to figure it out before bringing in an outside consultant, Boris Endler, who specializes in spacecraft fuel estimation.

After studying the inner workings of the Odyssey, Endler determines the reason behind the disappearance of the Fuel. The orbiter uses heaters to prevent its parts from freezing in the depths of space, and one of its heaters, which connects the fuel tanks, has been causing the propellant to warm at a faster rate than expected. As a result, the team’s attempts to estimate how much fuel was left in the Odyssey were thwarted as the propellant heated up faster than they expected, leading them to believe that there was less fuel in the orbiter’s tank.

“Our method of measurement was good. The problem is that the fluid dynamics that occur aboard Odyssey are more complex than we thought,” Jared Cole, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in the release. I mean, this sounds a little defensive, but oh well.

The team behind the mission went back to the drawing board, calculating how much fuel was left on the Odyssey while accounting for excess heat. It turns out that the orbiter is good to go until 2025. But that doesn’t mean it is content, The team is still working on improving the measurements.

“It’s a bit like our process of scientific discovery,” Cole said. “You’re exploring a system of engineering and you don’t know what you’ll find. And the longer you look, the more you find than you expected.”

Odyssey is a valued member of NASA’s Mars fleet. Not only does the probe transmit data between NASA’s ground control center and its two rovers on Mars, but it has also helped detect minerals, ice deposits, and potential landing sites on the Red Planet. Hopefully, some gas is still left in her tank for the spacecraft, continuing her 22-year-old legacy.

more: The Curiosity rover discovers clear evidence of ancient water on Mars