NASA launches new rover to search for traces of past life on Mars

Jim Bridenstine
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stands next to a replica of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover during a press conference ahead of the launch of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the rover, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S.

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 try 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 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50 a.m. EDT (1150 GMT) 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 facility in Pasadena, California where its mission engineers were located was rattled by an earthquake.

This marked NASA’s ninth journey to the Martian surface.

“I’m so relieved,” NASA’s science division chief Thomas Zurbuchen said on a NASA live stream after the launch, saying everything looked good.

“It’s really kind of a key of a whole bunch of new research that we’re doing that is focused on the question … is there life out there?” Zurbuchen said.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Mike Watkins quipped about the California quake: “It was just the Earth being excited about going to Mars. It was a very minor event. Everything’s fine, and we’re on our way to Mars.”

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 Mars billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.

This was the third launch from Earth to Mars this month, 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.

Aboard Perseverance is a four-pound (1.8 kg) autonomous helicopter named Ingenuity that is due to test powered flight on Mars. The thin Martian atmosphere – 99% less dense than Earth’s – poses a challenge to Ingenuity, which was designed to be light, with rotor blades that are larger and spin more quickly than what would be needed for a helicopter of its mass on Earth.

Since NASA’s first Mars rover Sojourner landed in 1997, the agency has sent two others – Spirit and Opportunity – that have explored the geology of expansive Martian plains and detected signs of past water formations, among other discoveries. NASA also has successfully sent three landers – Pathfinder, Phoenix, InSight.

The United States has plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s under a program that envisions using a return to the moon as a testing platform for human missions before making the more ambitious crewed journey to Mars.

Perseverance will conduct an experiment to convert elements of the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into propellant for future rockets launching off the Martian surface, or to produce breathable oxygen for future astronauts.

The rover also is intended to help bring Martian rock samples back to Earth, collecting materials in cigar-sized capsules and leaving them in various places for retrieval by a future “fetch” rover. That planned rover is expected to launch the samples back into space to link up with other spacecraft for an eventual Earth homecoming around 2031.

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