- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA yesterday launched the first of two golf-cart-sized rovers that will ramble across the rocky soil of Mars and drill for evidence that the Red Planet once had enough water to support life.

The rover, named Spirit, lifted off aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket on the seven-month journey to Mars.

Thunderstorms delayed the launch two days in a row, and officials also had to contend with a last-minute communications glitch with the ground tracking stations.

The second rover, named Opportunity, will be launched later this month, and both are expected to arrive at Mars in January.

Launch official Mark Levigne wished Spirit “a safe journey and a successful mission.” Referring to Opportunity, he added: “We’ll see you real soon.”

Omar Baez, NASA launch director, said the two-day postponement cut into preparations for Opportunity’s liftoff, and the June 25 launch may have to be delayed.

The rovers will move on six wheels and act as robotic geologists. Each is equipped with a panoramic camera, a camera for close-up views of rocks and a drill to cut into rocks. The data will be transmitted back to Earth.

Previous missions have shown Mars had water in the past, but scientists want to find out how long the water was there and in what quantities. Scientists believe the water may show that Mars once was able to support life.

The rovers’ landing sites, on opposite sides of the planet, were chosen for their likelihood of holding evidence of water. Studying the minerals in rocks can tell scientists how the rocks were formed, whether they were ever submerged in water and whether hot water ever ran over them.

The rovers, which cost a combined $800 million, are expected to travel up to 132 feet each Martian day, which is 24 hours and 39 minutes long.

The exploration of Mars by the rovers is expected to last three months but could run longer. The two vehicles will shut down as dust builds up on their solar panels, and they will be left on the planet.

Only 12 of 30 previous attempts by the United States, the Soviet Union and other spacefaring countries have reached Mars, and three of nine attempts have succeeded in landing on the planet.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration revamped its Mars program after the failure of two unmanned missions to the planet four years ago.

The space agency has been under scrutiny since February, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts aboard. A logo patch of Columbia’s final mission was attached to both Mars rovers.

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