December 15 marked the 3,340th day—or nearly ten years—since the spacecraft had entered Mars's orbit on October 24, 2001. Odyssey broke the record previously set by the Mars Global Surveyor, which operated from September 11, 1997, to November 2, 2006. (See photos: "Mars Probe Lost in Space?")
"That was very satisfying, because it was one of the key goals of the mission," Plaut said.
Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
Rugged Martian Terrain
The Martian landscape of plateaus and valleys called Noctis Labyrinthus is seen in a combination of images taken in 2003 and 2005 by Mars Odyssey.
The rugged terrain was formed by the stretching and fracturing of the Martian crust. As faults opened, subsurface ice and water gushed out, causing the ground to collapse. (See more Mars pictures.)
Odyssey's original mission had two goals: to determine what materials make up Mars's surface and to measure radiation on the red planet in preparation for possible future human missions to Mars, NASA's Plaut said.
Teardrop-shaped mesas extend behind impact craters on Mars's Ares Vallis region in this file photograph taken by the Mars Odyssey orbiter. Scientists believe the raised rocky rims once diverted floodwaters on the red planet.
Odyssey's longevity around Mars has allowed scientists to monitor yearly seasonal changes on the red planet, including how carbon dioxide freezes out of the atmosphere above the polar regions in winter.
Odyssey was initially supposed to have a companion spacecraft known as the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander, but NASA canceled that mission following the failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999.
A sea of dark, wind-sculpted sand dunes is seen in a combination of Mars Odyssey pictures taken between December 2002 and November 2004.
The dunes—which cover an area as big as Texas on Mars's northern polar cap—have colder areas (seen in blue) and warmer areas (seen in yellow and orange).
For a spacecraft that's been in orbit for nearly ten years, Odyssey is in "beautiful condition," Plaut said.
Most of its science instruments are still functioning, and backup systems for Odyssey have never had to be called into action. Perhaps the major limiting factor for the spacecraft is the small amount of fuel needed weekly to maintain its orbit.
If there are no major adjustments to Odyssey's orbit, team member estimate the spacecraft has enough fuel to last 10 to 15 more years.
Numerous wind-sculpted sand dunes resemble an abstract painting in a 2006 Mars Odyssey picture.
Odyssey was originally commissioned for only a three-year mission, but NASA has extended the probe's working life span three times now, most recently in October.
The spacecraft is now slated to operate through 2012, and there is a good possibility its mission could be extended again to aid NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed "Curiosity," which is scheduled to land on the planet in August 2012.
Odyssey currently serves as a communications relay station for NASA's Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and it could provide the same service for Curiosity, NASA's Plaut said.
"It's quite likely that if the spacecraft is healthy, we'll continue operating for at least a few more years" after 2012, he added.