MRO launches for Mars

by Chris Bergin

A space mission which could uncover Britain’s lost Mars probe Beagle 2 has blasted off into space, on top of an Atlas V rocket.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter set off on its 25-month mission to survey Mars, after being delayed twice earlier in the week.

The craft, the biggest spacecraft to be sent to the Red Planet, was first postponed on Tuesday night and again on Thursday. A problem with the sensors that measure the amount of fuel being loaded into the rocket appeared just minutes before lift-off on Thursday.

The size of a minibus and weighing 2,180kg, the orbiter is equipped with a host of powerful instruments. Its cameras can focus on objects so small that they may be able to spot spacecraft that crashed or broke down on the Martian surface.

They include Beagle 2, which was last seen heading for Mars after separating from its European Space Agency mothership Mars Express on Christmas Day, 2003. The British-built craft was supposed to land on Mars and search for signs of life, but vanished without trace.

“Dramatic discoveries … about recent gullies, near-surface permafrost and ancient surface water have given us a new Mars in the past few years,” said NASA’s Mars exploration chief scientist Michael Meyer.

“Learning more about what has happened to the water will focus searches for possible Martian life, past or present,” he added.

“Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the next step in our ambitious exploration of Mars,” Douglas McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars exploration programme, said earlier this week.

“We expect to use this spacecraft’s eyes in the sky in coming years as our primary tools to identify and evaluate the best places for future missions to land,” he added.

The £282m MRO could also search for Polar Lander, a NASA spacecraft lost on Mars in 1999.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is due reach Mars in March next year, but will not begin scientific operations until November.

To view images from the launch, click here:

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