Nasa mission blasts off to investigate life on Mars

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Cape Canaveral - A US spacecraft yesterday embarked on a 400-million- mile, 10-month journey to Mars, the first step in a decade-long effort to determine whether there has ever been life on the planet.

The Delta rocket is carrying the Mars Global Surveyor to replace a Mars probe that mysteriously disappeared three years ago. It should reach Mars in September 1997 and, after six months of easing into a mapping orbit, begin scrutinising the Martian surface and atmosphere.

"It's the beginning of a long sequence of missions ultimately whose goal must be to determine whether or not life was ever on Mars or even perhaps exists now," said Wesley Huntress Jr, the head of Nasa.

The Global Surveyor is the first of 10 US spacecraft to be sent to Mars over the next decade. It is the long- awaited successor to Nasa's last Mars probe, the Mars Observer, which never reached its destination.

Nasa expects to launch a pair of relatively inexpensive spacecraft to Mars every two years until 2005, including a robotic mission to return Martian soil and rocks to Earth that should settle the debate over life on Mars.

The Global Surveyor, made mostly from left-over parts from the Mars Observer, will scout for future landing spots. The total mission cost is $230m.

The Mars Pathfinder will follow on 2 December and, if all goes well, land on the planet on 4 July 1997.

As for sending humans, that will have to wait until at least the second decade of the next century.