Launching Opportunity

Launching ‘Opportunity’

NASA launched its second Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, late Monday night aboard a Delta II launch vehicle whose bright glare briefly illuminated Florida Space Coast beaches.

Delta launch rocket for MER mission.
Credit: NASA

Opportunity’s dash to Mars began with liftoff at 11:18:15 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (8:18:15 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The spacecraft separated successfully from the Delta’s third stage 83 minutes later, after it had been boosted out of Earth orbit and onto a course toward Mars. Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., received a signal from Opportunity at 12:43 a.m. Tuesday EDT (9:43 p.m. Monday PDT) via the Goldstone, Calif., antenna complex of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

(Click to view details) Terra Meridiani, hematite-rich and a probable test for the Mars’ wet hypothesis
Credit: Malin Space Systems/ARC/JPL/NASA

All systems on the spacecraft are operating as expected, JPL’s Richard Brace, Mars Exploration Rover deputy project manager, reported.

"We have a major step behind us now," said Pete Theisinger, project manager. "There are still high-risk parts of this mission ahead of us, but we have two spacecraft on the way to Mars, and that’s wonderful."

NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science Dr. Ed Weiler said, "Opportunity joins Spirit and other Mars-bound missions from the European Space Agency, Japan and the United Kingdom, which together mark the most extensive exploration of another planet in history. This ambitious undertaking is an amazing feat for Planet Earth and the human spirit of exploration."

Gray hematite (above) is found in three places on Mars: Meridiani Planum, Aram Chaos and Valles Marineris.
Credit: Amethyst Galleries, Inc.

As of early Tuesday, Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, has traveled 77 million kilometers (48 million miles) since its launch on June 10 and is operating in good health.

Opportunity is scheduled to arrive at a site on Mars called Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time (evening of Jan. 24, Eastern and Pacific times), three weeks after Spirit lands in a giant crater about halfway around the planet. On contemporary maps of Mars, Meridiani Planum is in dead center. What makes it an exciting spot is that it is the site of a vast deposit of gray hematite.

NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor orbiter has identified deposits at Meridiani Planum of that type of mineral (hematite) that usually forms in wet environments. Gray hematite has been found on Mars in only three places, Meridiani Planum being one of them. The other two locations, Aram Chaos and Valles Marineris, although even more interesting than Meridiani Planum in some respects, are too hazardous for a MER spacecraft to land in.

"The hematite itself is not particularly interesting," notes Phil Christensen, of Arizona State University. "We know it’s there; we’ve mapped it. So what? I argue that it’s a beacon that says, water was here, okay? And so now if you’re looking for the most interesting places to go land, there’s a beacon that says, hey, there was mineral evidence of water here, go there. And you look in detail and see what else is there."

Both rovers will function as robotic geologists, examining rocks and soil for clues about whether past environments at their landing sites may have been hospitable to life.

JPL Report. Information about the rovers and the scientific instruments they carry is available online from JPL and from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Related Web Pages

Evidence for Snow on Mars – and Perhaps an Abode for Life?
Mars Odyssey web site (with new images)
MARIE instrument
Valles Marineris
Mars by Stories
Impact Crater Landing Sites for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers
Mars Exploration Rover Homepage
2003 Mars Exploration Rover Mission