CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (News Nation) — NASA’s next-generation Mars rover Perseverance lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Thursday on a mission to search for traces of potential past life on Earth’s planetary neighbor.
The U.S. space agency’s $2.4 billion mission successfully launched shortly before 8 a.m. (ET) and is expected to reach Mars next February.
The car-sized six-wheeled robotic rover, which launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance, 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.
“This is the ninth time we’ve landed on Mars, so we do have experience with it,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
Perseverance is due to land at the base of an 820-foot-deep crater called Jezero, a former lake from 3.5 billion years ago that some 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 Martian surface billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.
“We don’t know if life existed there or not. But we do know that Mars at one point in its history was habitable,” Bridenstine said in a news conference on Wednesday.
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.
It is the latest launch from Earth to Mars during a busy month of July, following probes sent by the United Arab Emirates and China to the red planet.
The U.S. remains the only country to land successfully on Mars.
Aboard Perseverance is a four-pound autonomous helicopter named Ingenuity that is due to test powered flight on Mars for the first time.
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 Martian atmosphere into propellant for future rockets launching off the planet’s surface, or to produce breathable oxygen for future astronauts.
NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to return the samples to Earth around 2031.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.