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Spirit is launched: Rover's seven-month journey to Mars begins
June 12, 2003

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.

The planets were aligned, two days of high winds and thunderstorm threats abated, and on June 10 a Delta II rocket carrying a roving vehicle the size of a golf cart left behind a plume of fire and vapor for NASA's latest quest to Mars.

After bad weather postponed two launch attempts, one on Sunday and the other on Monday, the rocket carrying the first of two Mars Exploration Rovers, newly named Spirit, roared off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The mission will take Spirit and its Athena suite of scientific instruments, developed by a team led by Cornell astronomer Steven Squyres, to a scheduled Jan. 4 touchdown on the planet's surface.

"It was a picture-perfect launch. Delta gave us a perfect ride," said an elated Squyres. "It looks like we've got a healthy spacecraft going to Mars," he said after studying the telemetry, the indicators describing the spacecraft's functions.

But there was no time for him to celebrate. "We have to get ready for the next launch in two weeks," he said. The second rover, the newly named Opportunity, carrying an identical Athena package, is scheduled for launch on June 25.

More than an hour before Sunday's scheduled launch, NASA and military officials decided to postpone the mission as towering thunderstorm clouds grew quickly in the sultry June afternoon air of central coastal Florida.

Joel Tumbiolo, a meteorologist with the U.S. Air Force's 45th Weather Squadron and the mission's launch weather officer, had predicted poor climate conditions from Sunday through Tuesday. "Many people wish I would just go away," he told a press briefing June 7. "Every afternoon for the past few days, storms have been building in the area south of Cape Canaveral and then moving in our direction."

The weather met Tumbiolo's prediction. Following the Monday scrub, NASA and Air Force weather forecasters got what they hoped for on Tuesday, as dry conditions settled over the Cape. The forecasters had fretted about cumulus clouds, developing thunderstorms and anvil clouds growing within the vicinity of the launch pad and the Delta rocket flight path.

Despite the delay, the scientists and the engineers took the wait in stride. "Well, we scrubbed today. That happens a lot in the rocket business," said Squyres, writing June 9 in the latest entry in his online personal journal on the Athena Web site at http://www.athena.cornell.edu/news/. "Scrubs happen for all kinds of reasons. Usually it's weather, and that's what got us today."

Squyres explained why NASA simply cannot launch a rocket at will: "Because the Earth is always spinning, you need to wait until it's at just the right point in its spin to launch. Otherwise, you would be headed off in the wrong direction."

Because scientists want the mission to succeed, "You might think it would be frustrating when something like this happens, but it really isn't," said Squyres. "We've waited so long to fly these things that another day doesn't seem like much. And with $400 million worth of hardware out on the pad, we really don't want to take chances. So we'll try again tomorrow."

The spacecraft is taking the 384-pound rover on a seven-month, 311 million-mile ride to Mars, with arrival scheduled for Jan. 4. That is a relatively short time considering that a normal journey to Mars can take 10 to 12 months. But celestial mechanics is working in NASA's favor, as this summer Mars will be at its closest position to Earth in recorded history.

As the spacecraft enters the top layer of the Martian atmosphere, racing at 12,000 miles an hour, a capsule sheath will protect the rover, with a heat shield reminiscent of NASA's Mercury and Gemini capsules of the 1960s. Despite the planet's thin atmosphere, engineers at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the mission's manager, believe that the temperature on the heat shield could reach 2,637 degrees Fahrenheit.

About five miles above the Martian surface, a parachute will deploy and slow the craft to about 960 miles an hour. Within 20 seconds the craft will jettison the heat shield, exposing the landing craft, and radar will start calculating the distance to the ground.

Eight seconds before touchdown, gas generators will inflate the airbag-landing system, making the craft look like a soccer ball on steroids. From there, it will bounce onto the Martian surface and travel as far as two kilometers before stopping. The landing site is Gusev Crater, "which is like landing somewhere between the beach and Orlando," said Firouz Naderi, Mars exploration program manager at JPL.

From there, the craft will orient itself and open like the petals of a flower on a warm, spring day. Then it will begin its long, Martian surface trek, traveling up to 44 yards a day, taking panoramic photographs, microscopic images of the surface, rock samples and spectrometry readings.

In a prelaunch press conference at the Cape on June 6, Squyres alluded to the history of the Athena suite of scientific instruments. This journey to Mars had been "a decade in the making, but a three-year sprint to the finish," he said.

Referring to the rovers' panoramic cameras that will provide pristine views of the surface in a 360-degree panorama, he noted to the media, "It's Mars like you've never seen it before."

Squyres said his science team is expected to meet daily during the two rovers' three-month deployment on the planet's surface in order to reach a consensus on what to explore. The meeting time also will change daily by 39 minutes to accommodate the rovers' schedule on Mars, where days, called sols, are 39 minutes longer than those on Earth. Paraphrasing Neil Armstrong, Squyres said: "This is not a small step, this is a giant leap."