A $2.7 billion NASA rover, Perseverance, blasted off into clear skies over Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Thursday. Perched on an Atlas V rocket, it started its nearly seven-month journey to Mars. After spending 30 minutes in Earth orbit, the firing of an upper-stage engine sent the spacecraft on its interplanetary mission. If all goes according to plans, the vehicle will deposit the rover in a crater on Mars on Feb. 18.
Forty minutes after the launch, NASA reported it was in communication with the spacecraft and there were no technical issues.
The mission, officially known as Mars 2020, is designed to search for signs of ancient Martian life. The rover is supposed to obtain samples of rock cores and soil that could later be sent back to Earth for study in laboratories.
“Sitting atop that rocket there is one of the finest interplanetary payloads ever assembled, and the thousands of scientists and engineers behind them — they would have to be the finest team ever assembled,” Abigail Allwood, a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is part of the science team, said in an email as she and her colleagues awaited the launch. “This rover is going to kick some astrobiological butt.”
The rover is the successor to the still-operating Curiosity rover, which has made breakthrough discoveries, including finding complex organic molecules of the type that could be associated with living things. Perseverance is superficially similar to Curiosity but has a different suite of instruments that will allow it to inspect and take images of rock formations in far greater detail.
It has a drill for obtaining rock cores and soil samples, which the rover will stash in containers. NASA hopes to send another rover in 2026 that would collect the samples and launch them into Mars orbit. Another spacecraft would carry them back to Earth, with a targeted arrival of 2031.