NASA’s next-generation Mars rover Perseverance blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Thursday atop an Atlas 5 rocket on a $2.4 billion mission to search for traces of potential past life on Earth’s planetary neighbor.
The next-generation robotic rover – a car-sized six-wheeled scientific vehicle – also is scheduled to deploy a mini helicopter on Mars and test out equipment for future human missions to the fourth planet from the sun. It is expected to reach Mars next February.
It soared into the sky under clear, sunny and warm conditions carried by an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance. The launch took place after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California where its mission engineers were located was rattled by an earthquake.
This marked NASA’s ninth journey to the Martian surface.
Perseverance is due to land at the base of an 820-foot-deep (250 meters) crater called Jezero, a former lake from 3.5 billion years ago that scientists suspect could bear evidence of potential past microbial life on Mars.
Scientists have long debated whether Mars – once a much more hospitable place than it is today – ever harbored life. Water is considered a key ingredient for life, and the Mars billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.
One of the most complex maneuvers in Perseverance’s journey will be what mission engineers call the “seven minutes of terror,” when the robot endures extreme heat and speeds during its descent through the Martian atmosphere, deploying a set of supersonic parachutes before igniting mini rocket engines to gently touch down on the planet’s surface.
Aboard Perseverance is a four-pound (1.8 kg) autonomous helicopter named Ingenuity that is due to test powered flight on Mars for the first time.
This was scheduled as the third launch from Earth to Mars during a busy month of July, following probes sent by the United Arab Emirates and China. The state from which the rover was launched, Florida, is currently one of the hot spots in the United States for the coronavirus pandemic.