- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A spacecraft designed to gather more Mars data than all previous missions combined blasted off yesterday, beginning a seven-month journey to the Red Planet.

The launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter went flawlessly, with the Atlas V booster rocket shutting down and dropping off into the Atlantic minutes after liftoff. The second-stage rocket separated less than an hour later before two solar panels that will provide power during the voyage unfolded from the orbiter.

“So far, an absolutely terrific week for space exploration,” said Orlando Figueroa, a deputy associate administrator at NASA, referring to the successful return of Space Shuttle Discovery Tuesday.

Circling the planet for at least four years after arriving in March 2006, the orbiter is to provide unparalleled information on Mars’ weather, climate and geology, which could aid possible future human exploration of the Red Planet.

The $720 million mission has two parts.

During its first two years, the orbiter will build on NASA’s knowledge of the history of the planet’s ice. The planet is cold and dry with large caps of frozen water at its poles, but scientists think it was a wetter and possibly warmer place eons ago — conditions that might have been conducive to life. Scientists are also trying to determine if it could support future human outposts.

Equipped with the largest telescopic camera ever sent to another planet, the orbiter also will collect data that will help NASA plan where to land two robotic explorers later this decade. The Phoenix Mars Scout, in search of organic chemicals, will be launched in 2007, and the Mars Science Laboratory will follow two years later.

During the mission’s second phase, the orbiter will transmit messages between Earth and the robotic explorers on Mars. The reconnaissance orbiter’s antenna can transmit 10 times more data per minute than the current trio of satellites positioned around the planet — NASA’s Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

Two NASA rovers launched in 2003, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to roam the planet and may be the first to send information back to Earth via the reconnaissance orbiter.

The orbiter is loaded with two cameras that will provide high-resolution images and global maps of Martian weather, a spectrometer that will identify water-related minerals and a radiometer to measure atmospheric dust. The Italian Space Agency has provided ground-penetrating radar.

A glitch in computer sensors and software during fueling forced NASA to postpone the orbiter’s launch Thursday.

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