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NASA Launches Mars Orbiter

CAPE CANAVERAL - A spacecraft blasted off Friday into
a golden early morning sky, beginning a mission to Mars to gather
more data on the Red Planet than all combined previous missions.


The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifted off on an Atlas V rocket
on a seven-month journey to Mars.


"Surveying for the deepest insights into the mysterious
evolution of Mars!" NASA commentator George Diller said after
liftoff.


The launch went flawlessly. The booster rocket shut down and
dropped off into the Atlantic minutes after liftoff, and the
second-stage rocket separated less than an hour later, leading
workers at the launch control center to break into applause. A
short time later, two solar panels that will provide power during
the voyage unfolded from the orbiter.


"It couldn't have been any smoother," said launch manager
Chuck Dovale. The launch came just three days after space shuttle
Discovery completed its mission.


Circling the planet for at least four years, 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 is divided into two parts.


During its first two years, the orbiter will help build on
NASA's knowledge of the history of ice on the planet. 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 second phase of its mission, the orbiter will serve
as a communications messenger between the robotic explorers on Mars
and Earth. The reconnaissance orbiter has a powerful antenna that
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 relay
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 that will peer beneath the
surface of layers of rocks or ice.

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