CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – A spacecraft loaded with high-tech cameras, antenna and radar began a seven-month voyage to Mars on Friday that aims to gather more data on the Red Planet than all previous explorations combined.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter lifted off flawlessly on an Atlas V rocket, three days after space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth from a two-week mission.

“Our astronauts are safely back home, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is safely on its way to Mars,” said Orlando Figueroa, a NASA deputy associate administrator.

Powered by solar panels on its journey, the orbiter is expected to reach Mars next March. During the 310-million mile trip, NASA will test the six instruments aboard the orbiter.

including one that will measure the ultraviolet radiation from Earth so scientists have a comparison with Mars.

The orbiter then will spend the next six months dipping down into the planet’s upper atmosphere, using friction to slow down and lower its altitude. The trickiness of the maneuvers make mission managers anxious.

“Each time you dip into the atmosphere, you have to be very attentive because if you dip in too far … it can be detrimental to the spacecraft,” said project manager Jim Graf of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We have an atmosphere we don’t fully understand. … There are a lot of people who lose a lot of sleep.”

Circling around the planet, the orbiter won’t be able to send back images or data until the end of 2006. But then NASA expects it to start providing unparalleled information on the planet’s weather, climate and geology, which could aid possible future human exploration.

The $720 million mission has two stages.

During its first two years, the orbiter will build on NASA’s knowledge of the history of the planet’s ice. The planet is cold and dry with large caps of frozen water at its poles, but scientists think it was a wetter and possibly warmer place eons ago – conditions that might have been conducive to life. Scientists are also trying to determine if it could support future human outposts.

Equipped with the most powerful telescopic camera ever sent to another planet, the orbiter also will collect data that will help NASA plan where to land two robotic explorers later this decade. The Phoenix Mars Scout, in search of organic chemicals, will be launched in 2007, and the Mars Science Laboratory will follow two years later.

During the mission’s second phase, the orbiter will transmit messages between Earth and the robotic explorers on Mars. The reconnaissance orbiter’s antenna can transmit 10 times more data per minute than the current trio of satellites positioned around the planet.

Two NASA rovers launched in 2003, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to roam the planet and may be the first to send information back to Earth via the reconnaissance orbiter.

The orbiter is loaded with two cameras that will provide high-resolution images and global maps of Martian weather, a spectrometer that will identify water-related minerals and a radiometer to measure atmospheric dust.

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AP-ES-08-12-05 1818EDT

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