NASA launched its second Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, late Monday night aboard a Delta II launch vehicle whose bright glare briefly illuminated Florida Space Coast beaches.
Opportunity's dash to Mars began with liftoff at 11:18:15 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (8:18:15 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
The spacecraft separated successfully from the Delta's third stage 83 minutes later, after it had been boosted out of Earth orbit and onto a course toward Mars. Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., received a signal from Opportunity at 12:43 a.m. Tuesday EDT (9:43 p.m. Monday PDT) via the Goldstone, Calif., antenna complex of NASA's Deep Space Network.
All systems on the spacecraft are operating as expected, JPL's Richard Brace, Mars Exploration Rover deputy project manager, reported.
"We have a major step behind us now," said Pete Theisinger, project manager. "There are still high-risk parts of this mission ahead of us, but we have two spacecraft on the way to Mars, and that's wonderful."
NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science Dr. Ed Weiler said, "Opportunity joins Spirit and other Mars-bound missions from the European Space Agency, Japan and the United Kingdom, which together mark the most extensive exploration of another planet in history. This ambitious undertaking is an amazing feat for Planet Earth and the human spirit of exploration."
As of early Tuesday, Opportunity's twin, Spirit, has traveled 77 million kilometers (48 million miles) since its launch on June 10 and is operating in good health.
Opportunity is scheduled to arrive at a site on Mars called Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time (evening of Jan. 24, Eastern and Pacific times), three weeks after Spirit lands in a giant crater about halfway around the planet.
NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter has identified deposits at Meridiani Planum of a type of mineral that usually forms in wet environments. Both rovers will function as robotic geologists, examining rocks and soil for clues about whether past environments at their landing sites may have been hospitable to life.
JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. It built the rovers and manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for the NASA Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.
Information about the rovers and the scientific instruments they carry is available online from JPL at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mer and from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., at http://athena.cornell.edu.