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NASA Launches Mars Orbiter

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will gather more data on the red planet than all previous missions combined, according to NASA.

“[The] Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will seek to find out about the history of water on Mars with its science instruments,” the space agency said on its Web site. “They will zoom in for extreme close-up photography of the Martian surface, analyze minerals, look for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere, and monitor daily global weather.”

Officials said the launch went without hitch. After consuming about 200 tons of fuel and oxygen in just over four minutes, the Atlas booster rocket successfully turned off and fell into the Atlantic Ocean. A second-stage rocket then put the orbiter on an accurate path to Mars and dropped away, sparking applause from the NASA team at the launch control center.

The orbiter’s solar panels successfully finished unfolding 14 minutes later, enabling the craft to recharge its batteries and become fully functional.

“We have a healthy spacecraft on its way to Mars and a lot of happy people who made this possible,” said James Graf, the orbiter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The launch also marked the first time the Atlas rocket had commenced an interplanetary mission.

Although Mars is 72 million miles from Earth today, the spacecraft will have to travel more than four times that distance on its outbound-arc trajectory to intercept the red planet.

When the orbiter arrives on March 10, 2006 it will meet two other U.S. orbiters, Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, and the European Mars Express spacecraft in orbit around the planet and the still-functioning twin robot rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that continue to work on the surface. In addition to its research, the orbiter will serve as a communications relay station capable of transmitting data to Earth at 10 times the current rate.

The $720 million orbiter will circle Mars for at least four years, studying the planet in unprecedented detail from low orbit. Its main purpose is to find out how long water existed on Mars, a fact necessary to determining whether the planet ever sustained life.

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