NASA launches new Mars Perseverance rover to look for signs of past life

NASA’s next-generation Mars Perseverance rover took off Thursday from Cape Canaveral in Florida on top of an Atlas 5 rocket as part of a $ 2.4 billion mission to search for traces of potential past lives on Earth’s planetary neighbor.

The next-generation robotic rover – a car-sized six-wheeled science vehicle – is also expected to deploy a mini-helicopter to Mars and test equipment for future human missions to the Sun’s fourth planet. It should reach Mars next February.

It took to the skies in clear, sunny and warm conditions carried by an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed United Launch Alliance joint venture. The launch came after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where its mission engineers were located, was shaken by an earthquake.

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

The persistence is due to landing at the foot of a 250-meter-deep crater called Jezero, an ancient lake from 3.5 billion years ago that scientists suspect could provide evidence of potential past microbial life on Mars.

Scientists have long wondered if Mars – once a much more hospitable place than it is today – ever harbored life. Water is considered a key ingredient in life, and Mars billions of years ago had plenty of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.

One of the more complex maneuvers of Perseverance’s journey will be what mission engineers call the “seven minutes of terror,” when the robot experiences extreme heat and speeds as it descends through the Martian atmosphere, deploying a set of supersonic parachutes before igniting mini rocket engines. gently touch the surface of the planet.

This was planned as the third launch from Earth to Mars in a busy 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.

Onboard Perseverance is a four-pound (1.8 kg) autonomous helicopter named Ingenuity set to perform a test flight to Mars for the first time.

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

The United States plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s as part of a program that considers using a return to the moon as a test platform for human missions before making the crewed trip more ambitious towards Mars.

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

The rover is also intended to help bring Martian rock samples back to Earth, collect materials in cigar-sized capsules and leave them at various locations on the surface to be picked up by a future rover “fetch.” “. This planned rover is expected to send the samples back to space to link up with other spacecraft for a possible return to Earth around 2031.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)