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NASA's most advanced rover heads to Mars

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NASA's most advanced rover heads to Mars
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off at 7:50 a.m. Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying NASA's Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity helicopter to Mars. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., July 30 (UPI) -- NASA launched the most advanced Mars rover yet -- with technology and tools to find signs of life on the Red Planet -- on Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spacecraft that carries the Perseverance rover, which also is ferrying the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet, separated from its rocket just under an hour after the launch at 7:50 a.m. EDT.

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The Atlas V rocket launched with "2.3 million pounds of thrust to take aim at Mars" and headed toward Mars at over 25,000 miles per hour, according to NASA and launch company United Launch Alliance.

NASA's rover now joins the United Arab Emirates' Hope orbiter and China's Tianwen-1 probe, which also includes a rover, on the trip to Mars this summer.

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As with the other two missions, Thursday's launch begins a seven-month journey that will end at Mars in February. NASA predicts a Feb. 18 landing on Mars.

NASA officials said they had to adjust communication networks on Earth because the signal from the spacecraft was too strong at first, but otherwise the spacecraft's navigation system indicated it was on the right path.

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Trajectory corrections

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The agency has 15 days before it must make the first trajectory corrections, if needed, said Matt Wallace, NASA's deputy program manager for the mission.

Wallace noted that NASA overcame workplace restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic to make a deadline for launching this summer while Mars was close to the Earth's orbit.

"In dealing with pandemic, it really took the entire agency to step up and help us, and they didn't hesitate and they did it, and we really appreciate that," Wallace said.

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The mission, like any trip to Mars, comes with a lot of risks, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press conference in Florida on Wednesday.

"It's without question, a challenge. I mean we, there's no other way to put it, and it's not easy. ... That being said, we know how to land on Mars. We've done it eight times already," Bridenstine said.

This year's mission to Mars builds on the past discoveries made by rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, which led NASA to conclude that conditions once existed to support life there.

"Mars 2020 is without question the most advanced mission to Mars, including the two other missions headed there this year from China and the United Arab Emirates," said Raymond Arvidson, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Arvidson has been involved in every Mars mission since Viking 1 landed on the Red Planet in 1976.

Top-notch instruments

"The instruments on board are unmatched, and the planned return of Martian soil and rock samples is also historic," Arvidson said.

The mission's primary goal is to study rocks at or just below the surface for signs that life existed, or still exists, on Mars, and to understand its geology better.

The rover also will collect rock samples for return to Earth during a future mission, but NASA said that could take 10 years to accomplish.

NASA announced the Mars 2020 rover mission in 2012, at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, but the budget has swelled to $2.46 billion. Work on components started in 2017, and construction of the rover started to stream over a live webcam in June 2019.

The Atlas rocket carrying the rover had four solid-rocket strap-on boosters in addition to the main, first-stage booster. That is the same configuration used to launch NASA's Curiosity rover to Mars in 2011.

Mars 2020 and the Perseverance rover are scheduled to land at the large Jezero Crater amid that planet's Northern Lowlands. Scientists believe that once was home to a river delta.

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The rover will select targets for rock samples, drive and operate for at least one Mars year, which is about two Earth years.

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

Ingenuity is made up of a box carrying cameras and instruments, four spindly landing legs and two counter-rotating rotors. The rover will film the helicopter as it flies.

NASA describes Ingenuity as primarily an experiment to prove it can fly an aircraft on another planet and record images.

Ingenuity is considered a demonstration of a new technology, and NASA believes it could help to identify interesting targets for future Mars exploration. The helicopter's first flight is scheduled for two months after the rover lands.

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