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 1998. 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.