A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying NASA’s nuclear-poweredroared to life and lifted off from Cape Canaveral early Thursday, the first step in a decade-long program to search for signs of past microbial life and to collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.
It will take the $2.4 billion rover seven months to reach Mars. When it arrives in February, it will descend to the floor of a 28-mile-wide crater near the remnants of an ancient river delta and lakebed deposits where traces of past biological activity might be preserved.
Along with collecting samples to be recovered later by a European rover, Perseverance will drop off anwhich will be able to hover above the surface for the first “Wright brothers’ moment” on Mars. It will test technology astronauts might one day use to live off the land by extracting oxygen from from the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere.
Perseverance is the third Mars probe launched in the past two weeks, following spacecraft sent off by theand . It is also the most ambitious, building on the success of eight earlier Mars landings.
This is the first NASA mission explicitly designed to search for signs of life on another world.
“We’re doing transformative science,” said Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “For the first time, we’re looking for signs of life on another planet. And for the first time, we’re going to collect samples that’ll be part of, we hope, the first sample return from another planet. And there are a lot of other firsts along the way.”
After months of careful assembly and testing amid coronavirus work restrictions, the long-awaited mission finally got underway at 7:50 a.m. EDT when the Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD-180 first stage engine and four solid-propellant strap-on boosters ignited, generating a combined 2.3 million pounds of thrust.
The 197-foot-tall rocket and its payload tipped the scales at about 1.2 million pounds, and the excess liftoff power resulted in a faster-than-usual climb away from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
In just 35 seconds, the Atlas 5 was traveling faster than sound and four minutes later, when the RD-180 shut down and the first stage fell away, the vehicle was more than 300 miles from the launch site, nearly 100 miles up and moving at more than 13,400 mph.
At that point, the powerful hydrogen-fueled Centaur second stage took over, continuing the climb to space with an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine. Two Centaur firings were required to boost the Perseverance rover and its planetary cruise stage to an Earth-escape velocity of about 26,000 mph.
The Centaur’s flight computer was programmed to release the rover and cruise stage on a precise trajectory toward a point in space 292 million miles away where Mars will be next February.
The rover’s descent to the surface, famously described as “seven minutes of terror,” will begin when it plunges into the martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph, its heat shield enduring temperatures up to 2,370 degrees before its rocket-powered “sky crane” jet pack lowers it to the surface on the end of a tether.
The targeted landing site, Jezero Crater, features an ancient river channel cutting through one rim and a clearly visible delta fanning out across the crater’s floor. The river that once flowed in, some 3 to 4 billion years ago, filled a basin the size of Lake Tahoe.
“A delta is where you get the deposition of very fine grained (material), basically a mud,” said project scientist Ken Farley. “So mud comes in, gets carried down the river, it hits the slack water of the Lake and the mud settles out.
“The beauty of this is that anything that is carried down the river that might have been alive, or things that lived in the lake, will get buried in this very (favorable) environment. … So we know that we have a habitable environment with a high preservation potential.”
Perseverance, named by a Virgina seventh grader after a nationwide competition, is equipped with a complex sample collection and packaging system. As the mission progresses, a drill on the end of a robot arm will collect core samples that will be sealed in small, ultra-clean tubes and deposited at precise locations.
The long-range plan calls for a NASA lander to deliver a European Space Agency rover to fetch the samples. The rover will return to the lander, load the samples into a NASA-supplied rocket that will launch a sample container into Mars orbit. A European spacecraft then will capture the container and bring it back to Earth in 2031.
“If it sounds complicated, it is,” said Lori Glaze, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters. “But NASA’s investments in developing autonomous robots and landing large payloads on Mars have laid the groundwork for a successful sample return campaign.”