Rover Headed For Mars

A rocket holding the first of two Mars rovers blasted off Tuesday on a seven-month voyage to the Red Planet where the golf-car-sized vehicles will search for evidence that there was once enough water to support life on Mars.

The rover named Spirit lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket at 1:58 p.m.

Thunderstorms had delayed the launch by two days, and launch officials contended with a last-minute communications glitch between stations that will track the spacecraft.

The second rover, named Opportunity, will be launched later this month, and both are expected to arrive at Mars in January.

The rovers act as robotic geologists, moving on six wheels. Each is equipped with a pair of panoramic cameras, a camera for close-ups and a drill to sample rocks.

Previous missions have shown Mars had water in the past, but scientists want to find out how long the water was there and in what amounts. Scientists believe the water may show that Mars once was able to support life.

Only 12 out of 30 previous attempts have reached Mars, and only three out of nine attempts have succeeded in landing on the planet. The current rovers cost $800 million.

"It's just simply not trivial trying to land on another world," said CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood. "Ed Weiler, the NASA Science Chief, calls Mars the 'death planet' for that reason. Eight missions have tried to land on Mars and only three have been successful."

Previous missions have shown Mars had water in the past, but scientists want to find out how long the water was there and in what amounts. Scientists believe the water may show that Mars once was able to support life.

The rovers' landing sites, on opposite sides of the planet, were chosen for their likelihood of holding evidence of water. Studying the minerals in rocks can tell scientists how the rocks were formed, whether they were ever submerged in water, and whether hot water ever ran over them.

The rovers are expected to travel up to 132 feet each Martian day, which is 24 hours and 39½ minutes long.

The rovers' missions are expected to last three months but could run longer. They eventually will shut down as dust builds up on their solar panels.

"We sincerely hope it will be the successful beginning to one of the first great 21st century voyages of exploration," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said Sunday.

NASA revamped its Mars program after the failure of two unmanned missions to Mars four years ago.

The space agency has been under intense scrutiny since February when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven crew members. A logo patch of that last Columbia mission was attached to both Mars rovers.

The American rovers were officially named on Sunday. Third-grader Sofi Collis, 9, of Scottsdale, Arizona, chose the name Spirit for the first rover and Opportunity for the second in a nationwide contest that drew 10,000 entries.

"I used to live in an orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely," said Sofi, who was adopted from Siberia at age 2. "In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the spirit and the opportunity."

An unmanned European Space Agency Mars probe rocket was launched June 2 by a Russian rocket in Kazakhstan. It is expected to reach the Red Planet in mid-December.

The ESA's Mars Express includes radar built by scientists at the University of Iowa.

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