NASA rockets to Mars with Polar Lander
Web posted at: 6:36 p.m. EST (2336 GMT)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- NASA's Mars Polar Lander spacecraft lifted off on schedule Sunday, beginning an 11-month journey that is to culminate with a landing on the red planet's southernmost icy surface.
Mission controllers were able to take advantage of Sunday's 10-second launch window to send the spacecraft skyward aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket.
Unlike the Pathfinder mission of 1996, which included a robotic rover, the Mars Polar Lander will be stationary. But it includes an instrument never before used on a space probe: a microphone for listening to Martian sounds, such as the rush of wind.
The lander is designed to work in tandem with its sister spacecraft, the Mars Climate Orbiter, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral last month aboard a Delta 2 rocket.
The orbiter is designed to circle Mars like a weather satellite, gathering pictures and relaying key information back to Earth.
Meanwhile, the 1,360-pound (618-kg) lander will do its work at the Martian south pole, using its robotic arm to dig up soil and rock samples and providing views of an area of Mars never before seen.
The soil samples will be heated in a small onboard oven, and the resulting gases analyzed.
The lander also will carry a piggyback mission called Deep Space 2. The goal of that mission is to release two basketball-sized devices, 10 minutes before touchdown, which will strike the planet's surface at high velocity and penetrate beneath its surface with bullet-like probes.
Sarah Gavit, Deep Space 2 project manager, described the process as "crash landing" on Mars.
The twin probes will measure the underground temperature and attempt to determine if subsurface ice is present.
The companion orbiter, a rectangular spacecraft slightly larger than a refrigerator, is expected to reach Mars in late September and will spend two years surveying the Martian atmosphere, tracking the movement of water vapor and dust.
Ed Weiler, head of NASA's space science program, said the goal of both spacecraft is to "follow the water."
"If you want to look for life, either fossilized life or even extant life on another planet, you have to follow the water," Weiler said.
While the mission isn't specifically designed to look for traces of life, scientists say the information gathered should help them understand whether life could have once gained a foothold on the planet.
The combined $356 million mission is the first of eight tentatively planned to investigate Earth's nearest neighbor during the next 15 years.
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