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Mars Launch Delayed

June 09, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA officials on Sunday delayed the launch of the first robot rover headed to Mars as severe storms rolled into the area, threatening the rocket and the spacecraft perched within its nose.

Although skies were sunny when the decision was made about an hour and a half before launch, weather officers said an approaching thunderstorm system was ushering in high ground winds that could damage the Boeing Delta II rocket and endanger workers on the ground, said William Johnson, a spokesman for Kennedy Space Center.

Launch directors also were worried about lightning hitting the rocket. Even if no storm clouds are present, rockets can trigger lightning by building up strong electric fields on their surfaces as they speed through the atmosphere, Kennedy officials said. A lightning strike brought down an Atlas/Centaur rocket carrying a satellite in 1987.

Officials at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station said the weather during today's launch window was also predicted to be stormy. They expect some clearing by Tuesday.

Two robotic rovers are being sent to Mars as part of an $800-million project to probe the rocks and soil for signs that water once existed there for long periods; such a finding would mean that the planet may have been more hospitable to life than it is today. The second rover is scheduled to launch June 25. Both are expected to reach Mars in January.

The two Mars exploration rovers -- long known as MER-1 and MER-2 -- received their official names Sunday. They were named by 9-year-old Sofi Collis, who won a contest sponsored by the Lego Co. and the Pasadena-based Planetary Society.

Sofi, an orphan from Siberia who now lives with her adopted family in Scottsdale, Ariz., chose "Spirit" and "Opportunity" as the names for the two rovers. The names beat out many that had been suggested by those long involved in the project. Those included "Bonnie and Clyde," "Lewis and Clark," "Calvin and Hobbes," and the favorite of geologists on the project, "Rock and Roll."

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