Orbiter safely on way to take look at Mars
By wire services
Published August 13, 2005
CAPE CANAVERAL - A spacecraft loaded with high-tech cameras and radar began a seven-month voyage to Mars on Friday that aims to gather more data on the Red Planet than all previous explorations combined.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifted off flawlessly on an Atlas V rocket, three days after space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth from a two-week mission.
"Our astronauts are safely back home, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is safely on its way to Mars," said Orlando Figueroa, a NASA deputy associate administrator.
Powered by solar panels on its journey, the orbiter is expected to reach Mars in March.
During the 310-million mile trip, NASA will test the six instruments aboard the orbiter, including one that will measure the ultraviolet radiation from Earth so scientists have a comparison with Mars.
The orbiter then will spend the next six months dipping down into the planet's upper atmosphere, using friction to slow down and lower its altitude. The trickiness of the maneuvers make mission managers anxious.
"We have an atmosphere we don't fully understand. ... There are a lot of people who lose a lot of sleep," said project manager Jim Graf of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The orbiter is the latest in an armada of robot trailblazers dispatched in recent years to the Red Planet.
It will join three other spacecraft, two American and one European, that are orbiting Mars and surveying it from above.
Circling the planet, the orbiter won't be able to send back images or data until the end of 2006. But then NASA expects it to start providing unparalleled information on the planet's weather, climate and geology, which could aid future human exploration.
Information from the Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.
[Last modified August 13, 2005, 01:23:07]
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