The latest rover Perseverance has blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer.
The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built — a car-size vehicle bristling with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers — has blasted off as part of an ambitious, long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analysed for evidence of ancient life.
The launch went off on time at 1150 am GMT on Thursday despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake 20 minutes before liftoff that shook Southern California, the site of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the rover mission.
If all goes well, the rover will descend to the Martian surface on February 18, 2021, in what NASA calls seven minutes of terror, in which the craft goes from 19,300 kph (12,000 mph) to a complete stop, with no human intervention whatsoever. It is carrying 25 cameras and a pair of microphones that will enable Earthlings to vicariously tag along.
NASA’s Perseverance rode a mighty Atlas V rocket into a clear morning sky in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer.
China and the United Arab Emirates got a head start last week, but all three missions should reach the red planet in February after a journey of seven months and 480 million kilometres (300 million miles).
Separation confirmed! The United Launch Alliance #AtlasV rocket has released the Mars 2020 mission featuring the @NASAPersevere rover on a 7-month, 300-million-mile trek to the red planet.— ULA (@ulalaunch) July 30, 2020
📸 by ULA pic.twitter.com/awHrwnv5GH
$8B relay race
The plutonium-powered, six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries. The overall cost: more than $8 billion.
In addition to addressing the life-on-Mars question, the mission will yield lessons that could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts as early as the 2030s.
“There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance. Because going to Mars is hard,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said just before liftoff.
“It is always hard. It’s never been easy. In this case, it’s harder than ever before because we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic.”
Fly between Earth and Mars
The US, the only country to safely put a spacecraft on Mars, is seeking its ninth successful landing on the planet, which has proved to be the Bermuda Triangle of space exploration, with more than half of the world's missions there burning up, crashing or otherwise ending in failure.
China is sending both a rover and an orbiter. The UAE, a newcomer to outer space, has an orbiter en route.
It’s the biggest stampede to Mars in spacefaring history.
The opportunity to fly between Earth and Mars comes around only once every 26 months when the planets are on the same side of the sun and about as close as they can get.
Launch controllers wore masks and sat spaced apart at the Cape Canaveral control centre because of the coronavirus outbreak, which kept hundreds of scientists and other team members away from Perseverance’s liftoff.
“That was overwhelming. Overall, just ‘Wow!’” said Alex Mather, the 13-year-old Virginia schoolboy who proposed the name Perseverance in a NASA competition and watched the launch in person with his parents.
Perseverance will aim for treacherous unexplored territory: Jezero Crater, a dusty expanse riddled with boulders, cliffs, dunes and possibly rocks bearing signs of microbes from what was once a lake more than 3 billion years ago. The rover will store 15-gram (half-ounce) rock samples in dozens of super-sterilised titanium tubes.
It also will release a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet, and test out other technology to prepare the way for future astronauts, including equipment for extracting oxygen from Mars' thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere.
The plan is for NASA and the European Space Agency to launch a dune buggy in 2026 to fetch the rock samples, along with a rocket ship that will put the specimens into orbit around Mars. Then another spacecraft will capture the orbiting samples and bring them home.
Samples actually brought home from Mars, not drawn from meteorites discovered on Earth, have long been considered “the Holy Grail of Mars science,” according to NASA’s original and now-retired Mars czar, Scott Hubbard.
Though located a world away, Lake Salda, #Turkey, has geological similarities to Jezero Crater on #Mars. In fact, researchers even did field work at Lake Salda to prepare for #CountdownToMars and @NASAPersevere. https://t.co/jrKoWrbVwe pic.twitter.com/xB2GGgYfbr— NASA Earth (@NASAEarth) July 30, 2020
Possible life beyond the Earth
To definitively answer the profound question of whether life exists — or ever existed — beyond Earth, the samples must be analysed by the best electron microscopes and other instruments, far too big to fit on a spacecraft, he said.
“I’ve wanted to know if there was life elsewhere in the universe since I was 9 years old. That was more than 60 years ago,” the 71-year-old Hubbard said from his Northern California cabin. “But just maybe, I’ll live to see the fingerprints of life come back from Mars in one of those rock samples.”
"There is nothing better than bringing samples back to Earth where we can put them in a lab and we can apply every element of technology against those samples to make determinations as to whether or not there was, at one time, life on the surface of Mars,” said Bridenstine.
“We would like to congratulate the team at NASA/JPL on the launch of @NASAPersevere! DLR is proud to be part of the mission’s science team & contribute its expertise in image processing to evaluate the Mastcam-Z data,” says Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board https://t.co/nBonO8uYNY— DLR - English (@DLR_en) July 30, 2020
Scientists have long debated whether Mars –– once a much more hospitable place than it is today –– ever harboured 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.
Two other NASA landers are also operating on Mars: 2018′s InSight and 2012′s Curiosity rover. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three from the US, two from Europe and one from India.