Better late than never. Japan's Nozomi spacecraft is on its way to Mars after a 5-year delay.

Finally, Nozomi Heads for Mars

TOKYO--Something has finally gone right for Japan's troubled Mars probe, Nozomi. Last week the 5-year-old wanderer slingshotted around the Earth toward what researchers hope will be a long-delayed rendezvous with the Red Planet.

A botched swingby in June 1998 forced mission planners to send the $840 million spacecraft around the sun, where it waited for the next auspicious opportunity to swing by Earth en route to Mars. Last year a solar flare knocked out a heater necessary to warm the fuel Nozomi needs to enter a Mars orbit.

There was one silver lining to the detour: Scientists at Japan's Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), near Tokyo, used Nozomi's trip to the sun and back to learn more about the interplanetary magnetic field and the interstellar helium cone and to snap the most detailed images yet of Earth's plasmasphere. Onboard the spacecraft are 14 instruments, from six countries, intended to scope out Mars' magnetic field, atmosphere, and ionosphere as well as the solar wind that bathes the planet.

The recent maneuver appeared to be successful, but the researchers still don't know if they will be able to insert Nozomi into a Mars orbit. "We can't go so far as to say everything was solved by the swingby," says Hajime Hayakawa of ISAS. But he and others are hopeful that next winter Nozomi will finally be in position to do its original job.

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