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Shuttle Lifts Off; Astronauts Begin Studying Atmosphere

November 04, 1994|Associated Press

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Space shuttle Atlantis and its six astronauts blasted into orbit Thursday and quickly began surveying Earth's atmosphere, including the ozone layer and its gaping hole over the Antarctic.

The weather at the shuttle emergency landing site in Morocco improved enough to allow Atlantis to lift off at 9 a.m. PST.

"The Earth looks just as beautiful as it always did," commander Donald McMonagle said upon reaching orbit.

By Thursday evening, the five Americans and one Frenchman aboard had begun atmospheric observations from their 190-mile-high orbit. The shuttle holds seven instruments from the United States and Europe that will scour the stratosphere for ozone and other chemicals and examine solar energy during the 11-day voyage.

Scientists are particularly interested in the ozone hole over the Antarctic that forms every fall. The hole is 9 million square miles this year, about the size of North America.

To study the hole, the shuttle will fly just below Cape Horn, at the tip of South America.

The ozone layer is essential to life on Earth. It protects humans and other organisms from the sun's ultraviolet rays.

The mission is the seventh and final shuttle flight of the year, but the first by Atlantis since 1992. The ship underwent extensive modifications, including installation of wiring needed for Atlantis to dock with Russia's space station Mir next May.

Atlantis also is carrying a German satellite with infrared telescopes for studying the atmosphere. The astronauts locked onto the satellite with the shuttle robot arm Thursday for a system check; they were startled to discover increasing pressure in a helium tank on the spacecraft.

"We're keeping a close eye on this," Mission Control said.

The crew is supposed to release the satellite today and retrieve it eight days later.

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