The Surveyor spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida on 7 November 1996 aboard a Delta-7925 rocket. The 1,062-kilogram (2,342-pound) spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin Astronautics, will travel nearly 750 million kilometers (466 million miles) over the course of a 300-day cruise to reach Mars on 12 September 1997.
Upon reaching Mars, Surveyor will fire its main rocket engine for the 25-minute Mars orbit insertion (MOI) burn. This maneuver will slow the spacecraft and allow the planet's gravity to capture it into orbit. Initially, Surveyor will whirl around the red planet in a highly elliptical orbit that will take 48 hours to complete.
After orbit insertion, Surveyor will perform a series of orbit changes to lower the low point of its orbit into the upper fringes of the Martian atmosphere at an altitude of about 110 kilometers (68 miles). During every atmospheric pass, the spacecraft will slow down by a slight amount because of air resistance. This slowing will cause the spacecraft to lose altitude on its next pass through the orbit's high point. Surveyor will use this innovative "aerobraking" technique over a period of four months to lower the high point of its orbit from 56,000 kilometers (34,800 miles) to altitudes near 400 kilometers (250 miles).
The mapping phase of the mission will begin in mid-March 1999. During mapping operations, the spacecraft will circle Mars once every 118 minutes at an average altitude of 378 kilometers (235 miles). For 687 Earth days, Surveyor will utilize this orbital vantage point to collect scientific data on a continuous basis.
After mapping finishes in late January 2000, the spacecraft will function as a communications satellite to relay data back to Earth from surface landers launched as part of future Mars missions.
Revised Mission Plan
11 September 1997
This date marked the arrival of Mars Global Surveyor at the red planet. A 22-minute firing of Surveyor's main rocket engine placed the spacecraft into a highly elliptical orbit taking 44 hours, 59 minutes, and 34 seconds to complete. The initial orbit had a low point of 262 km above the northern hemisphere, and a high point of 54,026 km above the southern hemisphere.
17 September 1997
Start of Aerobraking
On September 17th, the flight team started performing a series of orbit changes to lower the low point of its orbit into the upper fringes of the Martian atmosphere. On every pass through the atmosphere, the spacecraft slowed down by a slight amount because of air resistance, and the high point of the orbit to begin to drop. The original plan was to use this "aerobraking" scheme to lower the high point of the orbit from 56,026 km down to 450 km by repeatedly flying through the atmosphere for four months.
11 October 1997
Pause in Aerobraking
The flight team performed a maneuver to raise the low point of the orbit out of the atmosphere. This suspension of aerobraking was performed because air pressure from the atmosphere caused one of Surveyor's two solar panels to bend backward by a slight amount. The panel in question was slightly damaged shortly after launch in November 1996.
7 November 1997
Resumption of Aerobraking
The decision to lower the low point of the orbit back into the atmosphere and resume aerobraking came after several weeks of analysis. Flight team members concluded that aerobraking is safe, provided that it occurs at a more gentle pace than proposed by the original mission plan.
November 1997 to May 1998
Aerobraking Phase 1
Under the new mission plan, aerobraking will occur with the low point of the orbit at an average altitude of 120 km, as opposed to the original altitude of 110 km. This slightly higher altitude results in a decrease of 66% in terms of air resistance pressure experienced by the spacecraft. During these six months, aerobraking will reduce the orbit period down to between 12 to 6 hours.
May 1998 to November 1998
Sometime slightly before May, aerobraking will be temporarily suspended to allow the orbit to drift into the proper position with respect to the Sun. Without this hiatus, Surveyor would complete aerobraking with its orbit in the wrong solar orientation.
In order to maximize the efficiency of the mission, these six months will be devoted to collecting as much science data as possible. Data will be collected between two to four times per day, at the low point of each orbit.
November 1998 to March 1999
Aerobraking Phase 2
During these six months, aerobraking will continue and will shrink the high point of the orbit down to 450 km. At this altitude, Surveyor will circle Mars once every two hours.
Start of Mapping
Aerobraking is scheduled to terminate at the same time the orbit drifts into its proper position with respect to the Sun. In the desired orientation for mapping operations, the spacecraft will always cross the day-side equator at 2:00 p.m.(local Mars time) moving from south to north. This geometry was selected to enhance the total quality of the science return.