updated 7/15/2004 6:51:29 AM ET 2004-07-15T10:51:29

After a series of delays, NASA’s Aura satellite was launched early Thursday on a $785 million mission to study the health of Earth’s atmosphere.

“We have ignition and we have liftoff,” a NASA television commentator said as the two-stage Boeing Delta II rocket carrying the satellite roared to life just before 3:02 a.m.

The satellite headed for an orbit 438 miles above the Earth.

The liftoff was scrubbed four times in recent weeks, including twice in the past two days. Tuesday’s launch was postponed because of concerns about the satellite’s scientific data recorder. Wednesday’s launch was scratched because of a questionable current measurement of a rocket battery.

NASA also had said there was only a 60 percent chance of launching Thursday because of concerns that stormy weather in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico might prevent the flight of a support aircraft.

Aura’s six-year mission is intended to determine the composition of Earth’s atmosphere in unprecedented detail.

“We’re really looking forward to the payoffs, both in terms of scientific understanding and benefits to society that are going to come from this Aura mission,” program scientist Phil DeCola said last week.

The mission seeks to improve understanding of how pollutants spread globally, to determine whether the stratospheric ozone layer, which blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation, is recovering from depletion by manmade chemicals, and how Earth’s climate is the changing as its atmosphere is altered.

The 6,542-pound satellite carries four instruments, built by Great Britain, the United States, the Netherlands and Finland.

Science operations were slated to begin about 90 days after launch.

Aura, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is part of NASA’s first series of Earth Observing System satellites. Two other parts of the system are already in orbit: the Terra satellite, which observes land, and Aqua, which studies Earth’s water cycle.

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