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NASA delays Mars mission by 24 hours

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Today should have seen the launch of the next mission to Mars, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. However, NASA has elected to delay the launch by 24 hours because of problems with the new Atlas V rocket launcher.

NASA said that a test at the manufacturers had revealed a problem with a part similar to those used in the flight control system on board the MRO launcher. The engineering team is now trying to work out of the problem that affected the part at the manufacturer is likely to affect the Atlas V that will propel the MRO into space.

Originally slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral at 12:54 British Summer Time, NASA says the Orbiter will now launch between 12:35 and 14:50 BST on Thursday.

The mission's main aim is to discover more about the history of water on Mars. During its 25-month mission, the MRO will scan the surface of Mars. The data it captures, including images in extreme close-up, will yield information about subsurface water, the minerals in the Martian soil, and the distribution of dust and water in the atmosphere. The orbiter will also monitor the daily global weather.

One of the cameras on board, the HiRISE, will be able to capture details of objects the size of a small table, raising the possibility that the missing Beagle 2 lander, and other lost Mars missions, could be seen from orbit.

Despite the huge surface area to be scanned, Professor Pillinger, Beagle 2's lead scientist, is optimistic about the chances of finding the lost craft. "If we could just see some trace of it on the surface then at least we could see how far it got the not knowing is the worst bit. It will be a very difficult thing to do but this is our best chance of finding out what happened," he said.

Dr Andrew Coates from UCLs Mullard Space Science Laboratory says that the MRO's research will compliment the work already done by the European Mars Express orbiter. "When combined with the data from Mars Express we will have an incredibly detailed picture of Mars, its atmosphere and surface, including ideal sites for future Landers. Additionally, MRO could provide a communications channel to Earth for future European robotic surface missions like ExoMars," he said. ®

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