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NASA overcame pandemic obstacles for Mars rover launch Thursday

A full scale model of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover is on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI
1 of 2 | A full scale model of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover is on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., July 29 (UPI) -- NASA overcame workplace difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic to achieve Thursday's Mars rover launch attempt, NASA deputy administrator Jim Morhard said Wednesday.

"Our workforce has done an amazing job and here we are, we're launching to Mars in the middle of a pandemic. We already launched two astronauts ... in the middle of a pandemic," Morhard said during a final briefing on the mission at Kennedy Space Center.

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"Everybody worked extremely hard to make this happen during very difficult times. And the reason is to bring hope and inspiration to the country and to the world," Morhard said.

"It looks like tomorrow morning is when we're going to launch, and we're very excited about it," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the briefing. "This is going to be an inspirational moment and of course we're very anxious."

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A two-hour launch window opens 7:50 a.m. EDT. at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rover will be carried aboard an Atlas V rocket, with it landing in Mars' Jezero Crater in February.

There is an 80% chance of favorable launch weather, according to a U.S. Space Force forecast.

Bridenstine said the mission is unique in many ways. Other Mars landers have searched for signs of life or conditions that supported life, but Perseverance is the first to target a specific area for life itself.

"So this is the first time in history where we're going to go to Mars with an explicit mission to find life on another world, ancient life on Mars," he said. "We don't know if life existed, or not, but we do know that Mars at one point in its history was habitable."

The rover launch is one of few NASA missions to remain fully operational during the COVID-19 pandemic. NASA technicians and engineers worked under tight restrictions during the global health crisis.

The mission could get underday as late as mid-August and still make it to Mars as the Red Planet is in close proximity to Earth. After that, Mars would be too far away and NASA would have to wait two years for another try.

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A delay of that magnitude could cost taxpayers $1.5 billion to store the rover and get it ready again for launch, Bridenstine said.

NASA's mission is one of three headed to Mars this summer during the close approach. The United Arab Emirates' Hope orbiter and China's Tianwen-1 probe, which includes an orbiter, lander and rover, are both on their way.

Bridenstine dismissed the idea that the United States and China are engaged in a race to Mars when asked during the briefing.

"So we've already done this, eight times," Bridenstine said. "You know, people can try to frame it as a race. I just look at it as, hey, here's another country doing some more discovery, and we are very hopeful that they'll share with the world. "

The U.S. Perseverance rover will drill into rock and collect samples at crucial locations on Mars, where scientists found evidence of ancient river deltas. The best samples, up to 35, will be hermetically sealed and dropped at various locations to be determined once the samples are collected.

A future rover will fetch the samples, after which a launcher will send them into space for a return to Earth.

Perseverance also carries a collection of other science and imaging instruments, and the Mars Ingenuity helicopter is strapped to its underside. The aircraft is powered by lithium-ion batteries that can recharge via solar panels.

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NASA announced the Mars 2020 rover mission in 2012, at a cost of $1.5 billion, but the budget swelled to $2.46 billion. Work on components started in 2017, while construction of the rover started streaming over a live webcam in June.

In keeping with NASA's tradition to have children name all Mars rovers, seventh-grader Alexander Mather of Virginia chose the name Perseverance. NASA announced his winning entry March 5 after a national contest.

NASA and the European Space Agency, which is part of the sample return mission, plan to send two more spacecraft to Mars to collect and return the samples to Earth by 2031.

Exploration of Mars through history

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used two different cameras to create this panoramic selfie, comprised of 60 images, in front of Mont Mercou, a rock outcrop that stands 20 feet tall on March 26, 2021, the 3,070th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. These were combined with 11 images taken by the Mastcam on the mast, or "head," of the rover on March 16. The hole visible to the left of the rover is where its robotic drill sampled a rock nicknamed "Nontron." The Curiosity team is nicknaming features in this part of Mars using names from the region around the village of Nontron in southwestern France. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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