Mars rover launch delayed again due to wind concerns

Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL — NASA postponed the launch of the latest Mars rover early Sunday because of concern about strong wind shear.

A new launch time for the rover, Opportunity, was set for 11:46 p.m. Sunday on a Delta II Heavy rocket that was being used for the first time. The weather was expected to improve late Sunday.

NASA twice missed opportunities to launch the rover. The first opportunity at 11:56 p.m. Saturday was bypassed because of concern that winds could blow toxic clouds into populated areas if there was a mishap, and because a boat was in a restricted area. The second lost chance was at 12:37 a.m. Sunday.

Opportunity, and its sister rover, Spirit, launched earlier this month, will act as robotic geologists during their three months of exploration on the Martian surface.

Expected to arrive on Mars in January, they are to send back images of sediment and mineral deposits that can help scientists determine whether there was ever enough water on the planet to sustain life.

The launch of Opportunity already had been postponed by three days because workers had to replace a band of cork insulation on the rocket.

The rovers are following two other probes on their way to Mars. Japan’s trouble-plagued Nozomi orbiter, originally launched in 1998, is scheduled to arrive in late December or early January. Scheduled to arrive at about the same time is the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter and its British-built Beagle 2 lander.

NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey already are circling the planet and sending back images to Earth.

“It’s one of the most intensive explorations of another planet in history,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Office of Space Science. “Literally, the world is going to Mars.”

The six-wheeled Opportunity rover, about the size of a large riding lawn mower, is loaded with cameras and equipment to analyze the Martian surface.

Out of nine previous attempts to land on Mars, only three have succeeded because of the difficulty of traveling more than 300 million miles and landing on the windy, dust-covered planet. The cost of sending the two rovers to Mars is $800 million.