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Surveyor soars toward red planet

Satellite to map Martian surface

November 7, 1996
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- NASA launched a 10-month, unmanned mission to Mars Thursday, the first step in a multi-spacecraft bid to determine if there is -- or ever was -- life on the fourth rock from the sun.
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Mars probe launch

Global Surveyor, the first of 10 NASA probes bound for Mars the next decade, replaces one that mysteriously disappeared three years ago.

The spacecraft soared aloft at noon EST atop a Delta 2 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida. The launch, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed 24 hours because of strong winds.

Surveyor will take 10 months to make the 470-million-mile trip and another six months to ease into a mapping orbit. Later, it will dip into the Red Planet's thin atmosphere, using its wing-like solar panels as brakes.

Surveyor will study the Martian surface and atmosphere, but will not land.

booster rocket

More to come

It is the first of three spacecraft, two U.S. and one Russian, destined for Mars this year. The next launch is Mars Pathfinder, equipped with a robotic ground vehicle, that is scheduled for liftoff December 2 and will land July 4, 1997, two months ahead of Surveyor.

NASA plans to send pairs of spacecraft every 26 months through 2005 but has no firm plans for a manned mission to Mars.

Thursday's launch comes amid controversial revelations by scientists of possible ancient life on Mars.

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Wes Huntress interview before the launch

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  • "One of our goals is ultimately to return a sample of the surface of the planet itself," NASA's Wes Huntress told CNN in a live interview. Scientists hope the sample has "evidence on whether or not there was early life on the planet," Huntress said.

    Observer: lost in space

    Surveyor was designed and built in record time to replace NASA's $1 billion Mars Observer probe, which spun out of control -- for reasons unknown -- just days before it was due to enter the planet's orbit in 1993.

    Surveyor carries copies of five of the seven scientific instruments on its ill-fated predecessor, but at $215 million is much less expensive. It was made mostly from leftover parts from Observer.

    The problem: where to look?

    From an altitude of 230 miles (365 km), its telephoto camera will see objects on the surface as small as a compact car. By the end of one Martian year -- 687 Earth days -- 99 percent of the planet will have been mapped by Surveyor's electronic eye.

    The probe does not carry any instruments that could directly detect evidence of life, but it will scout out sites for a future robotic mission to recover samples of rock.

    Scientists must decide the best places to look "before we decide which of those interesting rocks to bring back," Huntress said.

    "We'll be able to identify areas that might have been conducive to past life," said Surveyor Mission Manager Glenn Cunningham.icon (288K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    Correspondents John Zarrella, John Holliman and Reuters contributed to this report.

    Mars Mission icon Mission Mars special section
    November 1996

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