The U.S. has launched a Mars rover from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The lander will explore the planet's surface, looking for signs of life.
The Mars rover will sift through rocks and soil in search of water on the Red Planet, which is 440 million kilometers from earth. Dubbed Spirit, the lander will become the third U.S. martian probe. Two others, Mars Odyssey and Surveyor, are gathering information from orbit. They have produced tantalizing evidence that water, which could sustain some form of life, once existed on Mars.
Sean O'Keefe, the head of the U.S. space agency NASA, hailed the Mars mission, saying, "We sincerely hope that it will be the beginning of one of the first great 21st century voyages of exploration." A second martian lander, called Opportunity, is scheduled to be launched June 25. The two rovers will touch down on opposite sides of the planet in January.
If the rovers discover water, but no evidence of life forms, mission investigator Steve Squyres said it will disprove a fundamental theory about water as a necessary ingredient for life. But he says the discovery of water would add a piece to the puzzle about the cosmos.
"If we go there, and we find that life did arise, then all of sudden, our examples of places where life has arisen go from one to two. And if you have two, if you had that second example, it requires no great leap of logic or imagination to see that it could happen many places throughout the universe," he said.
The European Space Agency earlier this month launched its own scientific mission, to take advantage of orbits that have brought earth and Mars the closest they have been in 60,000 years.
Mr. Squyres believes the three Mars missions will complement each other in the quest for knowledge about the red planet.