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Mars rover launch delayed until Wednesday

The rover nicknamed Opportunity missed two chances Saturday night to launch to Mars.
The rover nicknamed Opportunity missed two chances Saturday night to launch to Mars.

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- A problem with cork insulation on the rocket scheduled to boost a NASA rover to Mars forced the U.S. space agency to scrub its scheduled Sunday night launch, officials said.

Opportunity, the second of two Mars Exploration Rovers, already had missed two launch windows Saturday night. The next chance for launch is Wednesday at 11:17 p.m. EDT.

"Problems have arisen with the cork insulation on the first stage of the Delta rocket," NASA spokesman George Diller said. "The situation must be analyzed and resolved before the launch can occur."

The cork is used for thermal protection to prevent the super-cold liquid oxygen inside the Delta rocket from getting too warm during launch. The cork is two feet tall and a quarter-inch thick, and wraps around the eight-foot-diameter vehicle.

NASA passed on two launch windows Saturday night because of strong winds.

After one of Saturday's launch attempts, technicians noticed that the cork insulation had come loose from the vehicle. About 10 percent of the cork will have to be replaced.

"They're confused why this is occurring," said Diller. "Last time it was between the adhesive and the cork. This time it's between the adhesive and the vehicle."

Earlier in the week, engineers delayed the launch by three days when they had trouble attaching the cork, which is applied with adhesive.

The rocket must be launched by July 15, when the Earth moves too far in its orbit around the sun for the Delta rocket to make it to Mars.

"We'd run out of gas before we got to Mars," one mission manager said.

The first Mars Exploration Rover, nicknamed Spirit, was launched on June 10 and is already 3 million miles from Earth. Spirit is expected to land inside a Martian crater on January 4, 2004.

Assuming Opportunity launches successfully, it is expected to land on the opposite side of the planet in late January.

Opportunity will examine how long water remained on the surface of Mars, a possible link to life on the red planet. On Earth, life exists wherever natural sources of water are found, which accounts for the space agency's keen interest in ancient sources of Martian water.

The combined cost of the two missions is $800 million, according to NASA.

The six-wheeled rovers have the ability to scoop up soil, drill into rocks and examine the samples. Data will be sent back to Earth for analysis by scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the mission control will be situated.

The twin missions will join European and Japanese spacecraft already on their way to Mars.

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