New Mars odyssey about to begin
(CNN) -- Beginning a new chapter in Mars exploration, NASA expects to launch Saturday a powerful new orbiter to scour the red planet for evidence of underground water and geologic hot spots.
The $300 million Mars Odyssey will become the first spacecraft launched to the red planet since two disastrous failures in 1999.
Mars Odyssey will search for water, map surface minerals and measure radiation levels -- observations that could provide clues about possible extraterrestrial life.
"Life on Earth was not a cosmic fluke but part of a broad imperative," Ed Weiler, NASA deputy administrator, told reporters Friday. "Mars is a lot like Earth. And billions of years ago it had some kind of atmosphere and huge quantities of flowing water."
Meteorologists predicted fair skies for the launch. But the sun, which has become extremely active in recent weeks, must cooperate too. Scientists will keep an eye out for solar storms, which can disrupt electrical systems on the ground and in space.
The spacecraft is slated to blast off aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, just after 11 a.m. EDT on Saturday. The orbiter should reach Mars in October after a journey of 286 million miles (460 million km).
Joining another satellite
Odyssey will join another NASA satellite already orbiting the red planet. Mars Global Surveyor has been circling Mars since 1997, snapping hundreds of thousands of high-resolution pictures.
Surveyor's camera can spot details as small as 3 meters. The camera onboard Odyssey cannot focus as well, but it will have the ability to "see" much more than physical topography.
The new orbiter is equipped with an infrared imaging camera that can distinguish the mineral content of geologic features only 100 meters (110 yards) across, compared to 3 km (1.9 miles) for a similar instrument on the Mars Global Surveyor.
By spotting possible hot spots, Odyssey could help determine whether Mars exhibited volcanic activity in the recent geological past. Odyssey also has a gamma ray spectrometer, which can peer into the shallow subsurface of Mars to measure elements, including hydrogen.
"We believe hydrogen may be the clue, the fingerprint, of where water may be," said Jim Garvin, Mars program scientist.
Because hydrogen is probably present in the form of water ice, the spectrometer is expected to measure permanent ground ice and how it changes with the seasons, NASA said.
Odyssey also will help identify favorable landing spots for twin rovers that NASA plans to launch in 2003. And it will relay radio communications between Earth and the rovers and later probes.
Reeling from 1999 losses
The mission is the first since NASA revamped its Mars program, which suffered the disastrous losses of an orbiter and lander less than three years ago.
In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter presumably burned up in the martian atmosphere because propulsion engineers failed to convert English and metric units.
Three months later, its sibling spacecraft, the Mars Polar Lander, likely crashed because a software glitch shut off the descent engines prematurely, sending it on a fatal plunge into the red planet.
NASA revised its Mars program after the mishaps, canceling numerous missions over the next decade. Those that survived were given much higher budgets and subjected to more critical review.
"We've strengthened communications, strengthened the processes. In effect, it's back to the future. We're looking at what made missions successes in the past," said Scott Hubbard, Mars program director.
NASA has no firm plans for a human mission to Mars. But one onboard experiment will monitor martian radiation levels, checking possible hazards for future colonists.
New Mars probe to launch Saturday
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