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Mars rover set for Sunday launch

The Mars Exploration Rovers are expected to land on Mars in January.
The Mars Exploration Rovers are expected to land on Mars in January.

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- NASA will try to launch the second of two robot Mars explorers Sunday night following several scrubbed attempts, space agency officials said Thursday.

Opportunity, the second of two Mars Exploration Rovers, was originally scheduled for launch June 25 but was delayed due to the tight schedule after the June 10 launch of its sister craft, Spirit.

The next launch is scheduled July 6 at 10:43 p.m. EDT. A backup opportunity is available at 11:26 p.m. EDT.

A problem with cork insulation on the rocket designed to boost the rover to Mars forced NASA to scrub a launch last weekend, after two other weather-related delays.

Following those aborted attempts, NASA said the problem would be inspected.

"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 2 feet high and one-quarter inch thick, wrapping around the 8-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.

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.

If Opportunity does not launch by the July deadline, the project would be delayed for four years -- the next time the Earth and Mars are in the correct positions.

The first Mars Exploration Rover, nicknamed Spirit, was launched 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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