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NASA starts countdown to Mars mission

Drawing of one of the twin Mars rovers
Drawing of one of the twin Mars rovers

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CANBERRA, Australia (Reuters) -- Astronomers have started a countdown to the launch of two robotic buggies on a mission to find out if there is, or ever was, life on Mars.

Charles Elachi, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said final preparations were underway with one "exploration rover" arriving at Cape Canaveral this week and the second due in three weeks.

He said the rovers, which are the size of an office desk, were set to be launched on May 30 and June 25, piggy-backing on two rockets then parachuting down to Mars in January in an air-bag cushioned landing.

Elachi said there was strong interest in the latest launches after recent indications there could be water ice on the red planet.

Interest was also keen after the loss in 1999 of two robotic Mars missions -- a lander and an orbiting spacecraft -- at a cost of $290 million. Missions to Mars can only occur every two years when the planets are in the favorable alignment.

Liquid water is seen as key for Earth-type life on a planet and underground water ice could help show how Mars developed.

"Interest in Mars has really heated up since indications of water raised the question again about whether life has evolved there," Elachi told Reuters in an interview while in Australia to visit one of three tracking stations involved in the mission.

He said NASA's robotic explorations, based at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, had not been affected by this month's shuttle Columbia disaster.

Elachi said three years of work had gone into the latest Mars mission at a cost of $800 million and scientists hoped to repeat the success of 1997's Mars Pathfinder mission, the first moveable buggy to land on Mars.

The new rovers can travel farther than Pathfinder, up to one km (0.6 miles), to relay information about rocks and surface moisture directly back to three centers worldwide -- in California in the Unites States, at Tidbinbilla near the Australian capital Canberra, and Madrid in Spain.

Each rover is equipped with a mast-mounted camera providing 360 degree, stereoscopic, views of the cold, rocky terrain and has a robotic arm that can put instruments against rock and soil.

Elachi said the latest solar-powered robotic landers would be able to transmit information about Mars for between 90-120 days once they arrived, depending on amounts of sunlight.

Once winter hit Mars, with temperatures plummeting to minus 150 degrees Centigrade, the rovers would run out of energy.

Elachi said NASA would decide in April which of four landing sites to use on Mars, using images and data from two other NASA spacecraft currently orbiting Mars -- Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey.

Mars is one of the most studied objects in our solar system. As Earth's next-door planetary neighbor, it has the advantage of location and is thought to be similar in composition to our planet.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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