- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A year and a half after twin robot rovers thrilled space fans with their hijinks on Mars, NASA is heading there again.

A fourth Mars orbiter is set to blast off tomorrow, carrying some of the most sophisticated science instruments ever sent into space.

Circling the planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will scan the desolate surface in search of sites to land more robotic explorers in the next decade.

“It’s time we start peeling back the onion layer and start looking at Mars from different vantage points,” said project manager James Graf of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Like the three current spacecraft flying around Mars — including a European orbiter — the latest probe will seek evidence of water and other signs that the planet once could have hosted life. The $720 million mission, which launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla., also will serve as a communications link to relay data to Earth.

Its powerful camera can snap the sharpest pictures yet of the planet’s rust-colored surface, with six times higher resolution than past images.

NASA took its first close-up pictures of Mars in 1965 when the Mariner 4 spacecraft zipped past the planet and snapped fewer than two dozen photos.

Since then, numerous probes that have landed, orbited or passed the planet have shot tens of thousands more images. But only about 2 percent of the planet has been viewed at high resolution.

“There are many unanswered questions about Mars,” project scientist Richard Zurek said.

The information gleaned by the spacecraft also could help scientists decide where to send a lander during the next decade to return the first samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth.

The stationary Phoenix lander will use a long robotic arm to explore the icy plains of the planet’s north pole. Later, the mobile Mars Science Laboratory will analyze rocks and soil in finer detail than the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have uncovered geologic evidence of past water activity.

The solar-powered rovers are still trekking across the Martian surface, even though scientists had not expected the six-wheeled machines to last more than three months in the hostile Martian environment.

The reconnaissance orbiter also will try to find two ill-fated spacecraft — NASA’s Mars Polar Lander and Britain’s Beagle 2 lander — which lost contact during separate landing attempts.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter should reach Mars’ orbit in mid-March. The spacecraft’s primary mission ends in 2010, but scientists say it has enough fuel to last until 2014.

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