NASA is sending its first mission to the moon in 25 years as the Lunar Prospector hurtles toward the moon on Tuesday to search for water, minerals and gases.
The unmanned Prospector, due to arrive at the moon on Sunday, carries science instruments that will explore the moon from orbit for evidence of resources such as frozen water and minerals.
Space officials believe the discovery of such resources, especially water, could be used by astronauts and even human settlers in future missions.
The four-foot, 650-pound spacecraft blasted off on Tuesday night from Kennedy Space Centre, one day late.
The Lunar Prospector's launch on Monday was scrapped after an Air Force radar needed to track the rocket failed.
An hour into the flight, an attached motor promptly fired, propelling Prospector out of low-Earth orbit and toward the moon 240-thousand miles away.
Aside from initial communication snags, NASA officials heading the mission were pleased.
Scott Hubbard, manager on the Lunar Prospector mission, heralded the launch as the first step in America's return to lunar exploration it began 25 years ago.
"We feel like we have taken a giant step forward toward returning to the moon. A great ride, a healthy spacecraft and very shortly, we will start to do a whole series of other things that will continue to demonstrate that we're going back to the moon and taking some important measurements."
SUPER CAPTION: Scott Hubbard, Lunar Prospector, Mission Manager, NASA
Officials expect the vehicle to arrive at the moon on Sunday.
NASA, which last explored the moon in December 1972 with Apollo 17, plans to begin collecting scientific data as soon as Prospector settles into its 60-mile-high polar orbit around the moon next Tuesday.
Lunar Prospector will search from its position in orbit for evidence of frozen water, gases and minerals which scientists believe could be present on the moon's surface.
Scientists should know within a month or two whether the moon's poles hold frozen water.
The mission's bold objectives is the work of a cooperative team effort among NASA, other federal agencies and the state of Florida, site of the Kennedy Space Centre.
"This is truly a multi-dimensional team - the scientific community, industry, NASA, other federal agencies and now the state of Florida - engaged in a programme to nurture and support a new generation of vehicles, a new generation of spacecraft, new opportunities to explore."
SUPER CAPTION: Edward O'Connor, Executive Director, Spaceport Florida Authority
It is hoped the mission will confirm the belief of some scientists that the poles of the moon hold as much as 1 billion tons of frozen water.
The presence of ice would make it easier for NASA to establish a lunar base.
Astronauts would be able, for example, to separate the water on the moon's surface into hydrogen and oxygen for use in rocket fuel as a sort of lunar gas station for spacecrafts.
Prospector, built by Lockheed Martin Corporation, will survey the entire moon for at least a year.
At the end of its mission, it will crash onto the lunar surface, where it will join other trash and space equipment left behind by the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon.
Those involved could give nothing but praise for the mission's successful start.
"The separation manoeuvre over Australia was right on cue and the de-orbit assist maneouver over Hawaii was just as planned. So the vehicle performed beautifully. The team is, as you can imagine, extremely thrilled that the vehicle performed as well as it did."
SUPER CAPTION: Lawrence Price, Lockheed Martin Astronautics
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