Volume: 01, Issue: 06
Spirit's launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
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Spirit's intended trajectory to Mars.
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Sofi Collis, winner of the rover naming competition, with the Spirit rover.
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Other Articles in This Issue:
Evidence for a Meteor Powered Extinction Found
Headless Comets Survive Plunge through Sun
Supplying the Space Station

NASA’s ‘Spirit’ Rover Begins Voyage to Mars

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project kicked off June 10 with the launch of Spirit, the first of twin robotic geologists that will explore the surface of the Red Planet. Spirit began its seven-month journey to Mars when its Delta II launch vehicle thundered aloft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

"We have plenty of challenges ahead, but this launch went so well, we're delighted," said Pete Theisinger, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover missions, who is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The spacecraft separated successfully from the Delta's third stage about 36 minutes after launch, while over the Indian Ocean. Flight controllers at JPL received a signal from the spacecraft at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, and all systems are operating as expected. As of 48 hours after the launch, Spirit had traveled 5,630,000 kilometers (3,500,000 miles) and was at a distance of 610,000 kilometers (380,000 miles) from Earth.

Spirit will arrive at Mars on Jan. 4, 2004. The rover will roam Gusev Crater, an area on Mars that bears evidence of past water activity and signs of life. Spirit's twin, Opportunity, which is being prepared for launch as early as 12:38 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time June 25, will be targeted to Meridiani Planum, a separate site with different signs of a watery past.

"Gusev and Meridiani give us two different types of evidence about liquid water in Mars' history," said Dr. Joy Crisp, Mars Exploration Rover project scientist at JPL. "Gusev appears to have been a crater lake. The channel of an ancient riverbed indicates water flowed right into it. Meridiani has a large deposit of gray hematite, a mineral that usually forms in a wet environment."

The identical rolling rovers can see sharper images, explore farther and examine rocks better than anything that's ever landed on Mars.

"The instrumentation onboard these rovers, combined with their great mobility, will offer a totally new view of Mars, including a microscopic view inside rocks for the first time," said Dr. Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space science at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. “However, missions to Mars have proven to be far more hazardous than missions to other planets. Historically, two out of three missions, from all countries that have tried to land on Mars, ended in failure. We have done everything we can to ensure our rovers have the best chance of success."

Scientists also hope the Mars Exploration Rover project will help pave the way for future manned explorations of the Red Planet.

"We see the twin rovers as stepping stones for the rest of the decade and to a future decade of Mars exploration that will ultimately provide the knowledge necessary for human exploration," said Orlando Figueroa, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

The names for the rovers were unveiled at a June 8 press conference announcing the winner of the naming contest sponsored by NASA and the Lego Co., a Denmark-based toymaker, with collaboration from the Planetary Society, Pasadena, California. Sofi Collis, a third grader from Scottsdale, Arizona, submitted the winning essay and names, Spirit and Opportunity. Hers was selected from nearly 10,000 entries in the contest.

"Thanks to Sofi Collis... we have names for the rovers that are extremely worthy of the bold mission they are about to undertake," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for the NASA Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.

Additional information about the project and an archived webcast of the launch is online at

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