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Atmosphere Probe Lifts Off

NASA launched a powerful new atmospheric research satellite early Thursday, kicking off a $765 million mission to monitor global air quality, climate change and the health of Earth's protective ozone layer.

After a string of near-daily technical delays, a slender Boeing Delta 2 rocket carrying the 6,860-pound Aura satellite finally roared to life at 6:02 a.m. EDT and vaulted away from Space Launch Complex 2-West at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood.

The satellite separated from the rocket about an hour later and entered orbit 438 miles above Earth.

Equipped with four sophisticated instruments, the TRW-built Aura is the third in a series of Earth Observing System satellites designed to monitor the health and behavior of the planet's atmosphere.

"Everything went well. We did get initial orbit and it seems to be right on," said Chuck Dovale, launch manager.

"I guess the third time was the charm, he said.

The liftoff was scrubbed four times in recent weeks, including twice in the past two days. Tuesday's launch was postponed because of concerns about the satellite's scientific data recorder. Wednesday's launch was scratched because of a reading of low current from a battery system on the rocket's second stage.

Dovale said three or four problems also cropped up in the 45 minutes before the launch but they were worked out without delaying the liftoff. He did not identify the problems.

"It was spectacular. We could see it 150 miles away," NASA spokeswoman Lynn Chandler said. "It was just stars and very few clouds."

Aura's six-year mission is intended to determine the composition of Earth's atmosphere in unprecedented detail.

"We're really looking forward to the payoffs, both in terms of scientific understanding and benefits to society that are going to come from this Aura mission," program scientist Phil DeCola said last week.

The mission seeks to improve understanding of how pollutants spread globally, to determine whether the stratospheric ozone layer, which blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation, is recovering from depletion by manmade chemicals, and how Earth's climate is the changing as its atmosphere is altered.

The 6,542-pound satellite's four instruments were built by Great Britain, the United States, the Netherlands and Finland.

Science operations were slated to begin about 90 days after launch.

Aura, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is part of NASA's first series of Earth Observing System satellites. Two other parts of the system are already in orbit: the Terra satellite, which observes land, and Aqua, which studies Earth's water cycle.

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.
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