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NASA says Mars mission off to a good start

The 2001 Mars Odyssey lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Saturday  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Three days after the Odyssey spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA said the Mars-bound craft is off to a good start.

"The spacecraft is doing extremely well," said G. Scott Hubbard, NASA's Mars Program director. "I've just checked with the payload operations people, and they tell me that all the measurements that they are getting -- from the thermal control, from the avionics, from the electronics -- all look just exactly like they should."

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CNN's John Zarrella reports on the mission of the Odyssey probe

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Odyssey is scheduled to reach Mars in October. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will then tighten its orbit and start studying the planet's surface in January 2002.

In a briefing for journalists, Hubbard said that scientists hope to find out what chemical and mineral elements make up the martian surface. The intriguing question of whether there has ever been life on Mars may also be answered, Hubbard said.

"By watching and understanding and characterizing where water might have been on Mars, and where it is today, maybe, we can understand not only how Mars evolved as a planet, but understand whether or not there could be life there in the past or life there today," Hubbard said. "This goes to one of the major questions that we have in space science at NASA, which is, are we alone?"

The Odyssey mission is one project in a step by step effort to explore Mars. Eventually, scientists aim to bring back to Earth samples from below the surface. However, Hubbard said some technologies, such as rockets to transport capsules containing samples from the martian surface to vehicles in space, have yet to be developed.

No human explorers would be sent until the exact composition of the Mars environment is known.

The loss of the Mars Polar Lander probe last year delivered a public blow to NASA. But Hubbard said the Odyssey team has put to work many lessons learned from that failure, and he said the Bush administration supports the Mars program.

"We've been treated very well," Hubbard said of President Bush's budget. "Our program that achieves this next stage of capability is, essentially, fully funded."

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2001 Mars Odyssey
Mars Global Surveyor

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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