Watch CBSN Live

Orbiter Begins Journey To Mars

A spacecraft equipped with millions of dollars in reconnaissance devices began its long journey to Mars Friday and is expected to gather more data on the Red Planet than all combined previous missions.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed a supersonic blastoff off into a golden early morning sky, lifting off on an Atlas V rocket on a seven-month journey to Mars. A previous attempt was scrubbed Thursday because of a glitch during fueling.

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.

CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports that earthlings are thinking of using the same toxic stuff already blamed for global warming here to put some life back on Mars.

"What we propose is to use greenhouse gases – the same ones that are currently on the earth causing climate change," said Margarita Marinova, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology.

Marinova says that the goal is to warm Mars enough so that the planet's south polar cap will evaporate.

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.

Blasting off within the first five minutes of a two-hour NASA-set launch window, the Atlas appeared rearing to go. Earlier this week, project manager Jim Graf of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory described the Atlas V rocket, being used for the first time in an interplanetary mission, as powerful and capable.

"It's just a thoroughbred waiting to break the bounds that's holding it back," Graf said. "Release the reins and let it get out ... into space."

The mission is the first government launch of Lockheed Martin's Atlas V launch vehicle. Letting "the reins" go, in this case, means setting off 900,000 pounds of thrust that power the vehicle through the atmosphere at a supersonic speed of approximately 10,000 mph.

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.