Nasa’s new car-sized robotic spacecraft is on its way to Mars in a mission to search for evidence of ancient life.
The Perseverance rover successfully blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Thursday at 12.50pm UK time on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake that shook southern California just 20 minutes before departure.
Nasa launch manager Omar Baez said: “We are on our way to Mars, there is no going back.”
It is the third mission heading to the Red Planet this month after launches by the UAE and China.
The six-wheeled rover will now travel 314 million miles over a period of nearly seven months before attempting to land on a 31-mile crater named Jezero.
Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult because of its thin and dynamic atmosphere and dust storms that rage on its surface – a feat that has been described as “seven minutes of terror”.
Nasa has succeeded in getting only a handful of functioning probes and rovers on to the Martian surface and more than half of all spacecraft sent there have either blown up or crashed.
Just before lift-off, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance – because going to Mars is hard.
“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.”
Satellite images suggest Jezero, located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia – a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator, may have been a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars was warmer and wetter.
Scientists believe evidence of microbial life could be preserved in the clay and muddy rocks in the crater, if it ever existed on the planet.
Along with several sophisticated instruments that will gather information about Mars’ geology, atmosphere, and environmental conditions, the rover is also carrying a small 1.8kg helicopter.
Called Ingenuity, the copter will fly short distances and will mark the first attempt at powered, controlled flight on another planet.
If successful, it could lead to more flying probes on other planets.
Perseverance will also trial technologies to help astronauts make future expeditions to Mars.
One such device includes an instrument, called Moxie, that will practise making oxygen from the planet’s atmosphere which is mostly made up of carbon dioxide.
Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s science mission chief, described the Perseverance mission as “humanity’s first round trip to another planet”.
The rover will package rock and soil samples in small containers that will be retrieved during future missions sometime in 2031.
Scientists in the UK will help Perseverance select the Martian samples to be brought back to Earth.
Researchers at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum will identify samples that could contain evidence of past life and study the mineralogy and geochemistry of the different rocks found in the crater.
Professor Mark Sephton, an astrobiologist at Imperial, said: “I hope that the samples we select and return will help current and future generations of scientists answer the question of whether there was ever life on the Red Planet.
“With one carefully chosen sample from Mars, we could discover that the history of life on the Earth is not unique in the Universe.”
Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, told the PA news agency: “We will continue to explore the heavens so long as the Moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond spark fires in our curiosity, and if Perseverance helps us find life on Mars, it will be a defining moment for humankind.
“The UK Space Agency is supporting these endeavours to explore our solar system with leading-edge robotics, and it is a credit to our expertise in the UK that researchers from both Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum are part of the international crack team working on this Nasa mission.”
UK’s Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Nasa’s Perseverance rover could help us answer the age-old question of whether life ever existed on Mars, and it is a credit to British scientists and their expertise that they are such a central part of these efforts.
“We will be paying close attention to the mission’s progress on Mars and looking forward to the launch of our own UK-built Rosalind Franklin rover in 2022, which will push the boundaries of space exploration once again.”
It is a busy week for Nasa, as the US space agency gears up to welcome two astronauts home as they attempt a splashdown off the Florida coast on Sunday.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will arrive in the Crew Dragon spacecraft, called Endeavour, which was designed and built by SpaceX.
The duo will close out a mission that was designed to test SpaceX’s human spaceflight system, including launch, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations, Nasa said.