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08-Jul-03 | Delta flight 299 – Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity

MER-B Opportunity is on its way!

A quiet terminal count — punctuated only by curious readings from the replacement destruct system battery and an error message from the spacecraft, both of which amounted to no big deal — turned into a nail-biter as a hold was called with just seven seconds left. A valve in the liquid oxygen fill-and-drain system had closed sluggishly, prompting the master controller computer to raise a red flag. Propulsion engineers cycled the valve several times and found that it was working properly, so a manual mode of LOX topping and pressurization was called for, a procedure that is not unprecedented in Delta launches. The launch team smoothly ran through its turnaround routine to reset for the second instantaneous launch window, some 43 minutes after the first.

At 23:18:15.170 EDT, the first Delta II Heavy leapt from SLC-17B and quickly cleared the tower. A new noise-suppression water deluge system made for an impressive display of steam that obscured the vehicle, but only for a brief moment as the oversized GEM-46 boosters rapidly accelerated the rocket into the sky. All three stages performed perfectly, including a lengthy second stage coast phase, as Boeing’s Ted Jones dodged among the crowd in the telemetry lab to give the play-by-play. A forward-facing videoroc on the second stage showed, amid occasional drop-outs, spin-up and separation of the third stage and spacecraft, and a few moments later, perhaps not coincidentally, the transmission got really ratty just at the time the third stage began to fire. About 85 minutes after liftoff, a cheer rose up from the MER-B mission team as the spacecraft came over the hill and let them know it was healthy and on course. Opportunity is expected to reach Mars on 25 January, 2004.

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