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"Spirit" Soars as MER Mission Begins
The skies above Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station finally parted on Tuesday, June 10, allowing the Mars Exploration Rover-A (MER-A) called Spirit to begin its seven-month journey to the red planet. After two consecutive days of thunderstorms foiled previous attempts, weather was perfect when the Boeing Delta II launch vehicle and its historic cargo lifted off at 1:58:46 p.m. EDT.

The 'Spirit' Mars Exploration Rover launches aboard a Delta II rocket.The "Spirit" Mars Exploration Rover launches aboard a Delta II rocket.
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The spacecraft, first of two MER rovers, separated from the Delta's third stage about 36 minutes after launch. Cheers erupted at 2:48 p.m. EDT when flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. acquired the spacecraft's signal, indicating that all systems were operating as expected.

"Spirit got a great ride on the launch vehicle today," said Peter Theisinger, MER Spacecraft Mission Director. "The spacecraft is in excellent condition, we're going to Mars, and I'm a very happy guy. ...We're in very good shape."

Spirit will land on Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, in Gusev Crater, an area that may once have been a crater lake. Carrying an impressive array of cameras and tools, the rover will act as a robot geologist, traveling up to 100 meters per day to examine rocks and soil for clues into the area's history of water. The second rover, Opportunity, set to launch no earlier than June 25, 2003, will land on the red planet on Jan. 25, 2004. It will land in an area called Meridiani Planum and begin the same geological work as its twin.

Third-grader Sofi Collis and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe unveil the MER rovers' names.Third-grader Sofi Collis and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe unveil the MER rovers' names.
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The rovers were named by Sofi Collis, age 9, a third-grader from Scottsdale, Ariz. In her essay, she recalled her early childhood in a Siberian orphanage: "At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the 'Spirit' and the 'Opportunity.'"

Collis and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe unveiled the names together during a June 8 ceremony at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "She has in her heritage and upbringing the soul of two great spacefaring countries," O'Keefe said of Collis, who was born in Siberia, adopted at age two and brought to the United States. "One of NASA's goals is to inspire the next generation of explorers. Sofi is a wonderful example of how that next generation also inspires us."

For further information on the MER mission and rovers, visit
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Kennedy Space Center