What is the Mars Global Surveyor?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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The Mars Global Surveyor is a spacecraft launched by the US space agency NASA in November 1996. It was co-developed by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The mission represented the United States' return to Mars after a 17-year hiatus, the last Mars mission being the Viking 2 lander, which reached the surface of Mars on 3 September 1976. The Mars Global Surveyor achieved orbital insertion on 24 August 1993, orbiting every 117.65 minutes at an average altitude of 378 kilometers.

The Mars Global Surveyor was an orbiter whose purpose was to take images of the red planet and send them back to Earth. The craft orbited Mars for nearly ten full years, until in November 2006 it stopped responding to communications from Earth and was declared lost. The Mars Global Surveyor is significant for two main reasons: first, it kickstarted a series of Mars missions and public fascination that continues to this day, and second, as recently as 2006 it observed evidence that small amounts of water has trickled on the surface of Mars in the last five years.


The Mars Global Surveyor is a 1030.5 kg (2,271 lb) system that subsisted on a power supply of 980 W, provided by solar panels. The craft contained five scientific instruments: the Mars Orbiter Camera, the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, a Thermal Emission Spectrometer, a Magnetometer and electron reflectometer, and an Ultrastable Oscillator for Doppler measurements. Of these, the most interesting was likely the camera. Although can't be compared to the HiRISE camera currently orbiting Mars, the camera was a huge jump in technology compared to the fuzzy images taken during the 70s, and provided important new pictures of the Martian surface for scientists to pour over.

The Mars Global Surveyor is also notable for observing the tracks and location of the Mars rover Spirit, which landed on Mars in January 2004. It is unfortunate that the spacecraft was lost in November 2006, but luckily in March 2007, several months before, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived in orbit around Mars with superior equipment, obsoleting the Global Surveyor anyway.

Consider the number of craft that have failed either en route or upon arrival to Mars, sometimes called "the Mars Curse," the Mars Global Surveyor mission arguably turned out quite successful, all things considered.


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